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Schumer non-committal on Hagel as defense secretary

The possibility of President Barack Obama nominating former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel as defense secretary seemed to suffer some deflation Sunday when in an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, Sen. Charles Schumer, D- N.Y., passed up the chance to support Hagel.

Asked by NBC’s David Gregory whether President Barack Obama should nominate Hagel to replace departing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Schumer said, “Well, that’s his choice. I think once he makes it, his record will be studied carefully. But until that point, I think we’re not going to know what’s going to happen.”

When Gregory asked directly whether he could support Hagel’s nomination, Schumer replied, “I’d have to study his record. I’m not going to comment until the president makes a nomination.”

NBC’s Andrea Mitchell said during the round-table panel discussion on Meet the Press that Schumer’s non-committal stance on Hagel was “very revealing” because “if a Democratic senator is not going to come to Chuck Hagel’s defense, then I think there are serious problems there.”

Alluding to the rumored nomination of UN envoy Susan Rice to be secretary of state – which ultimately ended with Rice withdrawing from contention – Mitchell added, “This White House cannot continue to float trial balloons and then have them shot down.” If this happens, she said, Obama is “perceived to be rolled by opponents.”

Appearing on Meet the Press with Schumer was Sen. Lindsey Graham, R- S.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee which will hold confirmation hearings on whoever Obama nominates to be defense secretary.

“A lot of Republicans are going to ask him (Hagel) hard questions,” Graham predicted. “And I don't think he's going to get many Republican votes. I like Chuck. But his positions, I didn't really frankly know all of them, are really out of the mainstream, and well to the left of the president. I think it'll be a challenging nomination.  But the (confirmation) hearings will matter.”

He added that, “I've got questions about Chuck's view of Iran, the situation with Hamas and Hezbollah, his position toward Israel, just Afghanistan. I want to hear what he has to say.”  But Graham said Hagel had made “very troubling comments by a future secretary of defense.”

Last week the Washington Post, which usually supports Obama on its editorial page, ran an editorial opposing the rumored Hagel nomination. 

The editorial called Hagel “isolated in his views about Iran during his time in the Senate. He repeatedly voted against sanctions, opposing even those aimed at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which at the time was orchestrating devastating bomb attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq. Mr. Hagel argued that direct negotiations, rather than sanctions, were the best means to alter Iran’s behavior.”

The editorial added that if Obama decides to use force to try to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal, it would be doubtful whether Hagel would be “ready to support and effectively implement such a decision” if he were defense secretary.

Conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens has assailed Hagel for saying "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here (on Capitol Hill)."

Rep. Elliot Engel, D- N.Y. who will be the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee next year, said in an interview on C-Span Sunday that in Hagel’s case “it seems that there is some kind of an endemic hostility toward Israel. And that’s troublesome for me and for a lot of other people. Obviously he served in the Senate for a number of years and he has done many good things. But I think in the sensitive post of secretary of defense those are warning bells, those are red lights. And I think that it’s potentially troublesome.”

Last week Hagel apologized for his 1998 opposition to President Bill Clinton’s nomination of James Hormel to be ambassador to Luxembourg because Hormel was "openly, aggressively gay."

"My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive," Hagel said in a written statement. "They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to Ambassador Hormel and any LGBT Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights.  I am fully supportive of ‘open service’ and committed to LGBT military families.”