WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel has made strides in his bid to secure Senate confirmation as defense secretary, winning the endorsement of leading Jewish Democratic senators and meeting with the leaders of major American Jewish groups.
But conservative pro-Israel opposition remains fierce, bolstered by the pivotal role being played by Christians United For Israel, the Texas-based group founded by Pastor John Hagee.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the first senator to come out against Hagel’s nomination, did so at Hagee’s behest, both men revealed on Monday.
CUFI’s affiliated Action Fund also has rallied hundreds of Christian pastors and leaders to Washington this week to lobby against the former Nebraska senator’s bid to succeed Leon Panetta.
And on Tuesday, as the pastors were swarming Senate offices, CUFI published four ads in states where Democratic senators are thought to be vulnerable in 2014: Arkansas, Louisiana, Colorado and North Carolina.
"We pray you vote against confirming Senator Hagel," said the ads, addressed to each state's senators.
"These are states in which we believe our opposition to the Hagel nomination is deeply and widely held, and we believe that it is crucial that these senators be made aware of where so many of their constituents stand on this nomination,” David Brog, CUFI’s executive director, told JTA in an email.
At a gathering Monday for more than 400 Christian activists from 46 states who came to Washington for the anti-Hagel lobbying, Hagee revealed that he had asked Cornyn to oppose Hagel weeks before President Obama had made the nomination public.
"The next morning, Senator Cornyn called the Washington Post and made a courageous stand to oppose the Hagel nomination, which is detrimental both to America and Israel," Hagee said.
The stated opposition of Cornyn, the minority whip, helped spur other Republicans to oppose Hagel, a Republican who served in the U.S. Senate from 1997 to 2008. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, has since said he is opposed, as have a number of other Republicans.
In his remarks Monday, Cornyn went over Hagel's much-reported past remarks: describing a "Jewish lobby" that "intimidates" lawmakers; advocating direct outreach to groups like Hamas and Hezbollah; and expressing skepticism of unilateral sanctions on Iran and the use of a military strike to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
"I cannot support a nominee for defense secretary who suggests we should be tougher on Israel and more lenient on Iran," Cornyn said.
Hagel has walked back many of these positions and apologized for the "Jewish lobby" remark. But Cornyn said he believed they were part of what he called a "confirmation conversion."
In his efforts to tamp down the pro-Israel opposition to his nomination, Hagel has won support from some of the leading Jewish pro-Israel Democrats in the Senate: Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who chairs the Armed Services Committee, as well as Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).
The Vietnam War hero also has the support of liberal Jewish groups, including Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum and J Street. On Wednesday, J Street was set to join Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a veteran and a member of the Armed Services Committee, on a conference call backing Hagel.
Hagel also has met with leaders of centrist pro-Israel groups, several of which had expressed concerns about his candidacy, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The groups described the meeting as “an important opportunity for a serious and thorough discussion.”
Democrats control 55 of the Senate's 100 seats and sources close to Hagel have said he is hoping that his longstanding friendships with some Senate Republicans will be enough to get the 60 votes necessary to avoid a filibuster.
Meanwhile, conservative Jewish groups have worked to keep up the pressure.
Last week, the Republican Jewish Coalition posted a web video featuring Democrats and Jewish organizational leaders expressing concern about Hagel. The Emergency Committee for Israel similarly ran a full-page ad in the New York Times on Jan. 15. The Zionist Organization of America is lobbying Senate offices.
Sheldon Adelson, one of the GOP’s most generous donors and an RJC board member, has called senators directly to make the case against Hagel.
“We've made a strategic decision to gin up as much support among our leaders to reach out to the folks,” said Matt Brooks, the RJC’s executive director.