WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama's choice to be his new defense secretary won support from an influential Senate Democrat on Tuesday as he reaches out to all 100 senators in an effort to smooth what's expected to be a difficult nomination process.
Former senator Chuck Hagel, a military veteran who has been criticized over his positions on Israel and gays, will be meeting personally with dozens of senators starting this week, according to an official working on his confirmation. The official was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.
An early sign of support came Tuesday from Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who said in a statement that he met with Hagel for 90 minutes on Monday and that Hagel reassured him on Israel, gays and other issues.
Schumer said he found Hagel's responses to be genuine and not stated to quiet his critics, and he urged his Senate colleagues who also had concerns about Hagel's nomination to support him.
Obama has nominated Hagel to replace Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Hagel's nomination requires Senate approval.
Many Republicans in the Senate are thirsting for a proxy fight over the president. Hagel's meetings this week will be vital for a nomination that faces outright opposition from a handful of Republicans, including the second-ranking Republican, Sen. John Cornyn, and nervous questions from influential Democrats such as Schumer.
Hagel's very public confirmation hearing before the Armed Services Committee likely will occur within weeks.
He has critical support. Former Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell called Hagel "superbly qualified," and two high-profile Democrats, Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin and Intelligence panel chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, have praised Hagel's extensive knowledge of national security issues.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, a senior Democratic member of the Foreign Relations Committee, 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."
Hagel has been dogged by questions of whether he's soft on Iran, weak in his backing for Israel and opposed to gay rights.
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 Republicans.
A potential vote is Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee who served two years with Hagel and has spoken highly of him. But Corker has real reservations about Hagel's views on nuclear weapons.
Corker was one of the few Republican votes in December 2010 for a new U.S.-Russia treaty on reducing the number of nuclear weapons and establishing a verification process.
"A lot of modernization was supposed to take place as a result of that on our nuclear arsenal. That's not happening at the pace that it should. The Pentagon is going to have a big effect on that, and for me, that is going to be a very big issue," the senator said Sunday on ABC.
In May, Hagel was one of the authors of a report that called for an 80 percent reduction of U.S. nuclear weapons and elimination of all nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, a step that would have a clear impact on Corker's home state of Tennessee.
Backers of Hagel's nomination insist that he supports a strong and ready nuclear arsenal.
Even though the 2014 midterm congressional elections are months away, some Senate Republicans are nervously watching for primary challenges from conservatives and determined to avoid them at all costs. Opposition to any Obama nominee will be a requirement for conservative voters.
Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, will have plenty of influence with some of his colleagues. McCain and Hagel once worked closely together, but differences over the Iraq war and the 2008 presidential election - Hagel did not endorse McCain - have pushed the two apart.
McCain, who has talked about presidents having the chance to choose their Cabinet, has said he has significant questions about Hagel's nomination.