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2 key senators back Obama's choice of Hagel for defence chief, say concerns on Israel eased

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WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's choice to be his new defence secretary won the backing of two of the staunchest pro-Israel Senate Democrats in a clear boost to the Republican's prospects of securing the job.

Sens. Chuck Schumer and Barbara Boxer said Tuesday that they had spoken extensively with Chuck Hagel and he had addressed their earlier reservations about whether he was "anti-Israel," too soft on Iran and opposed to gay rights.

"Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel, I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation," Schumer said the day after a 90-minute meeting with Hagel at the White House. "I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him."

Boxer expressed her support and urged fellow senators to do the same after receiving a letter from Hagel in which he insisted that he supports Obama's foreign policy positions. In the letter, the former senator also expressed regret for using the term "Jewish lobby" to describe pro-Israel groups, calling it a "very poor choice of words."

Republicans said it was highly unlikely that Schumer and Boxer would have opposed a Democratic president's nominee at the start of Obama's second term. Still, the support of two of the most prominent Jewish members of the Senate is certain to ease concerns among pro-Israel lawmakers and rally noncommittal Democrats to Hagel's side.

The Republican nominee must contend with opposition from the Republican Party ranks as Obama faces challenges to his choices in a fiercely partisan atmosphere.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said late Tuesday that he would oppose Hagel's nomination even though he called him a "good person" who made sacrifices during the Vietnam War.

"We are simply too philosophically opposed on the issues for me to support his nomination," Inhofe said in a statement following a meeting with Hagel.

A handful of other Republicans have announced their opposition to Hagel, including John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican senator.

Hagel met Tuesday with Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who spoke in generally positive terms about the nominee but said she would reserve judgment until after confirmation hearings.

"Our meeting today was helpful in addressing some of my concerns about his past statements, positions and votes," the Republican moderate said in a statement after the 90-minute session.

The two discussed Afghanistan, the defence budget, the Iranian threat and Israel. Collins was a strong proponent in 2010 of a law that allowed gays to serve openly in the military. She said she was satisfied that Hagel is "committed to implementing every aspect of this law."

Collins said they had an "open and frank discussion" about sanctions on Iran, and Hagel promised to provide her with additional information.

Cornyn was dismissive of Hagel's statements, calling them "retractions," as well as the response from Schumer and Boxer.

"No closed-door White House meeting with a single senator or a letter can erase a problematic 12-year Senate record and many troubling public statements from Sen. Hagel," Cornyn said of his former Republican colleague.

Boxer, in a conference call with reporters, said, "From what I've seen there seems to be a Republican push here to really go after Sen. Hagel, which is really quite disturbing,"

Schumer met with Hagel Monday afternoon at the White House and then spoke to Obama, according to a Senate aide. The New York senator telephoned Hagel Tuesday morning to tell him of his support.

Schumer 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, two groups he considers terrorist organizations.

Schumer said Hagel also provided assurances on gay rights and abortion rights for members of the military.

"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."

Boxer said Hagel assured her that he would carry out Obama's policies "without reservation." Schumer said the Pentagon nominee mollified him on the issue of unilateral sanctions on Iran, which Hagel has said in the past were ineffective.

"In our meeting, however, Senator Hagel clarified that he 'completely' supports President Obama's current sanctions against Iran. He added that further unilateral sanctions against Iran could be effective and necessary," Schumer said.

Boxer said Hagel, like others, has evolved on gay rights. She said that he promised to meet with her on issues such as sexual assault in the military.

Responding to the criticism of Hagel, Boxer said, "I feel people are being very unfair to Chuck Hagel."

Democrats hold a 55-45 advantage in the Senate and would have the votes to confirm Hagel on a simple majority, but they would need five Republican votes for the 60-vote threshold to break a blocking tactic known as the filibuster. A Republican effort to block Obama's choice of a former Republican senator would set off a firestorm as Senate leaders try to negotiate new rules on filibusters.

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Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this story.

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Follow Donna Cassata on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DonnaCassataAP

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