Kirsten Gillibrand and the Hagel lobby

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Obama, with Hagel and John Brennan. ()
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New York senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, who could play a key role in the fate of Chuck Hagel's nomination as Defense Secretary, are still officially undecided as to whether they'll support him. But Hagel isn't simply waiting for them to make up their minds.

He reached out to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand earlier this week, and the two spoke briefly by telephone, according to a source with knowledge of the call.

A spokesman for Gillibrand declined to characterize the conversation until the senator has a chance to meet with Hagel in person.

That meeting is likely to take place later this month, when Hagel makes the rounds on Capitol Hill, in advance of his appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, of which Gillibrand as a member.

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Hagel's outreach comes as he tries to weather a backlash from Republicans and some pro-Israel groups, who have criticized Hagel for once referring to the "Jewish lobby," for not signing on to critiques of Russian anti-semitism, and for his longstanding opposition to unilateral sanctions against Iran. (Though one Democratic aide said the opposition from Democratic groups had actually been more muted than expected.)

New York's senators, who traditionally set the standard for pro-Israelness in the Senate, could go a long way toward defusing those criticisms, if they see fit.

Attention has focused in particular on Schumer, who proudly serves Israel's most ardent defender in the Senate, after the retirement of Joe Lieberman.

But Gillibrand will actually have the first opportunity to publicly question Hagel, when he comes before the Armed Services Committee. Her vote in the committee could be an early signal.

Schumer has remained conspicuously noncommittal toward Hagel's nomination thus far. "All I can say is that I have an open mind and I'm ready to sit and listen to him," he told the Wall Street Journal this week. Schumer has reportedly told Jewish leaders it would be "very hard" for him to vote to confirm Hagel, though, as the number-three Democrat in the Senate leadership, it would be considered a serious rebuke of the president for him not to. 

During Hagel's time in the Senate, he and Schumer sometimes disagreed directly over Middle East policy, particularly on the question of sanctions.

"I find myself much in the minority on this issue and certainly do not agree with my friend and colleague from New York on the issue," Hagel said in one such instance, when he led a lonely opposition to the renewal of sanctions against Iran and Libya, back in 2001. Schumer was one of the original co-sponsors of that legislation and one of its most outspoken proponents, calling it "an issue of morality."

For Gillibrand, the nomination will serve as an introduction.

Unlike Schumer, who overlapped with Hagel in the Senate for more than a decade, Gillibrand has no personal history with him. Hagel officially departed Congress in early January of 2009, three weeks before she was appointed to the Senate.

Gillibrand's statement reacting to the nomination was slightly more pointed than Schumer's, stating her intention to ask "tough questions," especially when it comes to Iran.

"Considering some of the statements Senator Hagel has made, and votes he has cast, particularly regarding Iran policy, tough questions must and will be asked to clarify his views before these hearings are complete," she said.