As Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s nominee to lead the Pentagon, prepared to meet with senior New York Senator Chuck Schumer in mid-January, the White House stepped in and ensured that the get-together would take place quickly - and in the West Wing.
Some of the loudest objections to Obama’s choice of Hagel for secretary of defense stemmed from lawmakers’ concerns about his past comments on Israel and Iran.
And with Schumer, the leading Jewish Democrat in Congress, among those expressing doubts, the administration wanted to make absolutely clear that it expected his support. Hosting the meeting in the White House wing housing the president’s official offices was a symbol of its importance to the administration.
The West Wing session - followed by Schumer’s effusive endorsement of Hagel - was part of an all-out offensive Obama’s White House has launched to secure Hagel’s nomination, administration officials and congressional aides said. The campaign has included a Pentagon task force, hours of meetings and, at times, some judicious direct intervention.
Hagel, 66, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and former two-term Republican senator, emerged as a leading candidate to replace Leon Panetta almost as quickly as the defense secretary announced his retirement.
Hagel’s Senate confirmation hearing is scheduled for Thursday morning, and his approval is less than a sure bet.
To battle a well-financed firestorm of objections from neoconservative and gay rights groups, the White House lined up a large team to work with Hagel and make the former Nebraska senator’s case to his former colleagues.
The group included Obama allies like Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, who pushed Schumer and other balky Democrats to back Hagel, White House officials and Hagel aides from his two terms in the Senate.
Administration officials have reached out to Jewish groups and reassured gay rights activists. Hagel met with leaders of some of the largest Jewish-American groups at the White House on Friday, where he was joined by Vice President Joe Biden.