* Schumer, Senate No. 3 Democrat, seen as key vote
* Boxer, California, had also held back support
* Support expected from all Senate Democrats, some
By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON, Jan 15 Former Republican Senator
Chuck Hagel's chances of becoming the next U.S. defense
secretary received a critical boost on Tuesday when two leading
Senate Democrats said they had decided to vote to confirm him.
U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat
in the Senate, said his concerns over Hagel's positions on
Israel, Iran and other issues were addressed during their
90-minute meeting on Monday. He described Hagel as "forthcoming
"Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel,
I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation," said
Schumer. "I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my
previous concerns to also support him."
Critics including Republican legislators and conservative
pro-Israel groups have sought to portray Hagel as anti-Israel
and as someone who is not committed to preventing Iran from
obtaining a nuclear weapon, accusations he strongly denies.
U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, a senior member of the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee, also said she would back Hagel.
The four-term California senator had held off announcing her
support. On Tuesday, she said Hagel would have her vote -- after
they had had a long conversation and after he wrote her a letter
spelling out his positions on Iran, Israel, and the treatment of
gays and women in the military.
"We spoke for quite a while last week and I was very pleased
with that conversation," Boxer told reporters on a conference
call from California.
She said she had not been aware of Schumer's announcement
and that the two had made their decisions independently.
"I urge more of my colleagues to come out because from what
I've seen is there seems to be a Republican push here to really
go after Senator Hagel, which is really quite disturbing," Boxer
IRAN, ISRAEL, BUDGET
A decorated Vietnam veteran who split from fellow
Republicans by opposing the U.S.-led war against Iraq, Hagel was
nominated by President Barack Obama on Jan. 7 to replace
outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Republicans say that are concerned that Hagel opposes
sanctions and is satisfied with containing Iran, as opposed to
preventing it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. They also worry
that Hagel would not prevent inordinately deep Pentagon budget
Some conservative senators have already declared their
intention to vote against the former Nebraska senator.
"A record of extreme views makes Hagel an unwise pick, and
the president's decision points to more rancorous fights to
come," Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker, a member of the
Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote in Politico.
The committee will hold confirmation hearings at the end of
the month or in early February, Senate aides said.
Republicans also criticized a 2006 reference by Hagel to the
influence of the "Jewish lobby" in Washington. Hagel has
acknowledged that he misspoke and his defenders say such
concerns are overblown.
"He told me that if there's one thing in his life that he'd
like to take back, it's that. And he was very devastated about
it looking back," said Boxer, who served on the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee with Hagel for 10 years.
Schumer and Boxer are both Jewish, and their decisions
bolster the likelihood Hagel will win Senate confirmation.
Hagel has spent much of the past week calling and writing
senators whose votes could be crucial for his confirmation.
Hagel is expected to garner votes from all 53 Senate
Democrats and between 10 and 15 Republicans, according to one
observer who has been counting votes.