WASHINGTON - Sen. Chuck Schumer, an influential Democrat and member of the party's leadership, said Tuesday he would back President Barack Obama's choice of Chuck Hagel to head the Pentagon despite earlier misgivings about the Republican's stand on Israel, Iran and gay rights.
In a lengthy statement, Schumer said he met for 90 minutes with Hagel on Monday and received assurances on a range of issues from the former Republican senator.
"I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation. I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him," Schumer said.
The face-to-face meeting took place in the West Wing of the White House. While there, Schumer also met with Obama in the Oval Office, according to a Senate aide. Schumer told Obama that Hagel's responses on Israel were critical to his decision on the nomination.
Schumer telephoned Hagel Tuesday morning and informed him of his decision, according to the aide.
Hagel has faced opposition from his former Republican colleagues and lukewarm support from some Democrats before and after Obama tapped him to replace Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
But Schumer's support coupled with backing from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, will be critical to the prospects for his nomination. The two are the more prominent Jewish members of the Senate, and Schumer is the third-ranking Senate Democrat.
In a conference call with reporters, Boxer said she was unaware that Schumer had announced his support for Hagel, but the fact that the two lawmakers reached their decision independently would be a boost to his nomination.
Boxer said she was confident that Hagel would carry out Obama's policies.
She added: "I feel people are being very unfair to Chuck Hagel."
Schumer said Hagel told him that he backs all steps necessary, including the use of military force, to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Schumer also said Hagel told him that he has always supported Israel's right to retaliate militarily against attacks by Hezbollah or Hamas.
Hagel drew widespread criticism for referring to the "Jewish lobby" in describing certain pro-Israel groups. Schumer said Hagel understands the sensitivity of the "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," Schumer said. 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."
Schumer said Hagel also provided assurances on gay rights and abortion rights for members of the military.
Hagel has reached out to all 100 senators and his meeting with Schumer was the first of a dozen one-on-one sessions planned over the next few weeks.
Hagel's confirmation hearing before the Armed Services Committee will probably occur within weeks.
Boxer said late Monday that she would support Hagel's nomination. She said he provided answers to a range of questions and promised to support Obama's policies "without reservation."
The former Nebraska GOP senator has been dogged by questions of whether he's soft on Iran, weak in his backing for Israel and opposed to gay rights.
"A lot of charges rise up and fall when the facts are presented," Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a friend of Hagel's, said in an interview Monday. "That's the same thing that's going to happen here. These claims - suddenly claims are debunked - and we get on to substance."
Backers of Hagel's nomination counter criticism by pointing to his votes for some $40 billion in military and security aid for Israel during his 12 years in the Senate and his support for all options, including military action, to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. They argue that his position on gay rights has evolved.
Despite the support, Hagel - a Republican tapped by a Democratic president - has few advocates in either party in the Senate and a limited number of opportunities to make inroads with the GOP.
Democrats hold a 55-45 advantage in the Senate, and the party has the numbers to confirm Hagel if the vote is a simple majority. A possible Republican filibuster and a threshold of 60 votes would add even more rancor to the current fight between Democrats and Republicans over Senate rules just as the leaders are trying to negotiate a compromise.