Barbara Boxer endorses Chuck Hagel; Schumer on board

California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer endorsed her former GOP colleague for Defense Secretary late Monday evening. Boxer had withheld support after President Obama nominated the Nebraskan last week, citing questions about his position on Israel, women’s issues and gays and lesbians.

Boxer said she spoke with Hagel “extensively” by telephone last week and received a detailed written response to her questions late Monday.

In a telephone press call, Boxer said Hagel answered all her concerns, and said he fully supports President Obama’s policies. She said he told her he considered his reference to “the Jewish lobby” one of his biggest mistakes and wished he could take it back. As for his support for Israel, Boxer said, “I’m not worried about it.”

Boxer said Hagel’s voting record was consistently pro-Israel. “I feel people are being very unfair,” Boxer said. Citing his votes and writings, she said, “It’s not true that he hasn’t always believed there’s a deep and abiding connection between our two nations.”

She said she got full assurances on Hagel’s support for gays and lesbians in the military, a promise to fully execute repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and full equal benefits for the families of gay and lesbian service members. She said he had apologized to James Hormel for once calling him “aggressively gay.” Boxer said she secured another pledge that Hagel would work on what she called an epidemic of sexual assault in the military.

Boxer served with Hagel for a decade on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Boxer was one of the few in the Senate who voted initially against the Iraq War. She praised Hagel’s turn against that war as a Republican. ” can tell you Sen. hagel was always an independent and courageous vote on the committee,” Boxer said. “So few people were speaking out, and when he turned against the war his voice was so important…in helping to change public opinion and he took a lot of hits for it.”

Support from liberals such as Boxer is critical to Hagel’s confirmation, as he is facing stiff resistance from Republican neoconservatives who disliked his anti-war stance on Iraq. Any Democratic defections could doom the nomination. New York Democrat Chuck Schumer, considered pivotal to Hagel’s confirmation, endorsed Hagel Tuesday. Boxer said she first learned of Schumer’s endorsement on the press call and said the two came to their conclusions independently.

Schumer said in a statement he had concerns with Hagel over Israel and Iran, but kept them private until he had a chance to speak with Hagel, whom he met with Monday for 90 minutes. “Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel, I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation,” Schumer said. “I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him.”

“On Iran, Senator Hagel rejected a strategy of containment and expressed the need to keep all options on the table…But he didn’t stop there. In our conversation, Sen. Hagel made a crystal-clear promise that he would do ‘whatever it takes’ to stop Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons, including the use of military force. He said his “top priority” as Secretary of Defense would be the planning of military contingencies related to Iran.” That includes tough sanctions.

On Hezbollah, and Hamas, Schumer said “notwithstanding any letters he refused to sign in the past—he has always considered the group to be a terrorist organization.” Schumer said he asked about a letter Hagel signed in March 2009 urging Obama to open direct talks with Hamas leaders. Schumer said Hagel assured him “that he today believes there should be no negotiations with Hamas, Hezbollah or any other terrorist group until they renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.

“Senator Hagel volunteered that he has always supported Israel’s right to retaliate militarily in the face of terrorist attacks by Hezbollah or Hamas. He understood the predicament Israel is in when terrorist groups hide rocket launchers among civilian populations and stage attacks from there. He supported Israel’s right to defend herself even in those difficult circumstances.”

“Regarding his unfortunate use of the term “Jewish lobby” to refer to certain pro-Israel groups, Senator Hagel understands the sensitivity around such a loaded term and regrets saying it.

“I know some will question whether Senator Hagel’s assurances are merely attempts to quiet critics as he seeks confirmation to this critical post. But I don’t think so. Senator Hagel realizes the situation in the Middle East has changed, with Israel in a dramatically more endangered position than it was even five years ago. His views are genuine, and reflect this new reality.

“On issues related to female and LGBT service members, Senator Hagel provided key assurances as well. He said he is committed to implementing the Shaheen amendment to improve the reproductive health of military women. He also supports the full repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

“In general, I believe any President deserves latitude in selecting his own advisors. While the Senate confirmation process must be allowed to run its course, it is my hope that Senator Hagel’s thorough explanations will remove any lingering controversy regarding his nomination.”

Carolyn Lochhead