By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel's chances of becoming the President Barack Obama's defense secretary received a critical boost on Tuesday when two leading Senate Democrats said they had decided to vote to confirm him.
U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, and Senator Barbara Boxer, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Hagel had eased their concerns over Hagel's positions on Israel, Iran and other issues.
"Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel, I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation," Schumer said in an extensive statement. "I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him."
Critics including Republican legislators and conservative pro-Israel groups have sought to portray Hagel as anti-Israel and as someone who is not committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, accusations he strongly denies.
White House staffers arranged the 90-minute meeting between Schumer, a leading Jewish-American legislative voice, and Hagel, which took place at the White House and was kept secret until Schumer's announcement.
Schumer was initially offered a telephone interview with Hagel, but Schumer said he would rather meet face-to-face. The New York Democrat called both Obama and Hagel on Tuesday morning to inform them that he was about to issue a statement announcing his support, a Democratic Senate aide said.
Boxer had held off announcing her support. On Tuesday, she said Hagel would have her vote - after they had a long conversation and he wrote her a letter spelling out his positions on Iran, Israel and the treatment of gays and women in the military.
"We spoke for quite a while last week and I was very pleased with that conversation," Boxer told reporters on a conference call from California, her home state.
"I urge more of my colleagues to come out because from what I've seen is there seems to be a Republican push here to really go after Senator Hagel, which is really quite disturbing," Boxer said.
A decorated Vietnam veteran who split from fellow Republicans by opposing the U.S.-led war against Iraq, Hagel was nominated by Obama on January 7 to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
IRAN, ISRAEL, BUDGET
Republicans say that are concerned that Hagel opposes sanctions and is satisfied with containing Iran, as opposed to preventing it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. They also worry that Hagel would not prevent deep Pentagon budget cuts.
Some conservative senators have already declared their intention to vote against the former Nebraska senator.
Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the new Senate Armed Services Committee, which will hold confirmation hearings, said he met with Hagel on Tuesday and opposes his nomination. He cited issues including Hagel's refusing to sign a letter affirming solidarity with Israel in 2000, voting against extending sanctions on Iran in 2001 and support for nuclear disarmament.
"We are simply too philosophically opposed on the issues for me to support his nomination," Inhofe said in a statement.
Schumer said Hagel rejected a strategy of containment for Iran. "Senator Hagel made a crystal-clear promise that he would do 'whatever it takes' to stop Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons, including the use of military force. He said his 'top priority' as Secretary of Defense would be the planning of military contingencies related to Iran."
Hagel also promised to continue a program to deliver F-35 joint strike fighters to Israel, continue cooperation on Israel's Iron Dome interceptor system and recommend that the United States refuse to join any NATO exercises if Turkey continues to insist that Israel be excluded from them.
The Armed Services committee will hold confirmation hearings at the end of the month or in early February, Senate aides said.
Republicans also criticized a 2006 reference by Hagel to the influence of the "Jewish lobby" in Washington. Hagel has acknowledged that he misspoke and his defenders say such concerns are overblown.
"He told me that if there's one thing in his life that he'd like to take back, it's that," said Boxer, who served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with Hagel for 10 years and is Jewish.
Hagel has spent much of the past week calling and writing senators whose votes could be crucial for his confirmation.
Hagel met on Tuesday with newly elected Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, a new Democratic member of the Armed Services committee and close Obama ally. In a statement, Kaine said the discussion had been "positive and productive" and he looked forward to the next phase of the confirmation process.
Hagel is expected to garner votes from all 53 Senate Democrats and between 10 and 15 Republicans, according to one observer who has been counting votes.
(Additional reporting by Kim Dixon, Phil Stewart, Mark Hosenball and Tom Ferraro; editing by Cynthia Osterman)