Chuck Schumer, one of the Senate's top Democrats and most vociferous allies of Israel, said Tuesday he would back President Barack Obama's choice of Chuck Hagel to head the Pentagon despite earlier misgivings.
His backing will give the former Nebraska Republican senator one of his most crucial endorsements yet in a controversial nomination, and according to NBC News' First Read, it will make Hagel a likely shoo-in to win confirmation.
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.
Schumer also is the third-ranking Senate Democrat.
The New York lawmaker 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.
A potential vote is Sen. Bob Corker, top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, who served two years with Hagel and has spoken highly of him. But the Tennessee lawmaker has real reservations about Hagel's views on nuclear weapons, which could affect more than 5,000 jobs at the Y-12 National Security Complex near Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Any cuts in the nation's nuclear arsenal would affect work at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, which makes uranium parts for every warhead and is the primary storehouse for bomb-grade uranium. The facility also dismantles old 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 in an interview on ABC's "This Week."
Corker also raised questions about Hagel's "overall temperament" for the job, citing unidentified former staffers. Questions to Corker's office Monday about the staffers went unanswered.
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.
The study for the advocacy group Global Zero argued that the United States needed no more than 900 total nuclear weapons for its security in a post-Cold War era. The U.S. and Russia have an estimated 5,000 nuclear weapons each, either deployed or in reserve. The two countries are already on track to reduce to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads by 2018, as required by the New START treaty.
The Obama administration reportedly is considering various options for lower total numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons. The report calls for such weapons to be reduced to about 450, while maintaining an equal number of stored weapons.
"There is no conceivable situation in the contemporary world in which it would be in either country's national security interest to initiate a nuclear attack against the other side," the report said.
Joining Hagel on the report was retired Gen. James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; former ambassadors Richard Burt and Thomas Pickering; and retired Gen. Jack Sheehan.
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.