January 15, 2013 10:23 pm

Support from Democrat senator lifts Hagel

The controversial nomination of Chuck Hagel to be next US secretary of defence received a major boost on Tuesday when an influential Democratic senator said he would back the former Republican senator.

Charles Schumer, the New York senator and one of the most high-profile Jewish members of Congress, said that he would vote in favour of Mr Hagel, a former Republican senator whose views on Israel have been criticised by many in his party.

The endorsement from Mr Schumer will be a huge relief to the White House, which has taken a calculated risk in nominating the former senator, but it came at the cost of Mr Hagel making some hawkish sounding remarks about Iran.

Amid the high-stakes negotiations with Congress over fiscal issues, the nomination of Mr Hagel has become an important test of will for President Barack Obama at the start of his second term, especially after Republican opposition forced him to abandon his preferred candidate for secretary of state.

However, the furore over Mr Hagel, who has been bitterly criticised by some in his party, including allegations of anti-Semitism, has also exposed the sharp divisions among Republicans over foreign policy between its neoconservative and realist wings.

Mr Schumer said he had decided to support Mr Hagel after meeting him for 90 minutes in the White House on Monday. “I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation,” he said in a statement. “I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him.”

As a result of Mr Schumer’s support, Mr Hagel now stands a strong chance of winning enough support from Democrats to be confirmed, unless new revelations appear in the coming days.

Mr Hagel has come under attack from former colleagues in the senate for comments he made about the “Jewish lobby” and for his stated reluctance to undertake military action against Iran over its nuclear programme.

According to Mr Schumer, in their meeting Mr Hagel “rejected a strategy of containment and expressed the need to keep all options on the table in confronting that country”. He said he would do “whatever it takes” to stop Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons and his “top priority” at the Pentagon would be planning for Iran-related military contingencies.

On the “Jewish lobby” remark, Mr Hagel said he “understands the sensitivity around such a loaded term and regrets saying it”. Mr Schumer added that Mr Hagel “realises the situation in the Middle East has changed, with Israel in a dramatically more endangered position than it was even five years ago”.

The fierce arguments over Mr Hagel have continued in recent days. Elliot Abrams, a former official in several Republican administrations now at the Council on Foreign Relations, told NPR last week that Mr Hagel “appears to be” anti-Semitic and “seems to have some kind of problem with Jews”.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations who worked in the George H.W. Bush administration, responded that it was “preposterous” to accuse Mr Hagel of anti-Semitism.

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