At a grim hearing, Hagel grasps at Gillibrand’s lifeline

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In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing today, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand finally had the chance to publicly question Chuck Hagel, saying she'd be focusing her time on the "most urgent issues from my perspective," which were, in order: Iran, Israel, Israel, Israel, Syria, Afghanistan, and the treatment of women in the military.

Hagel appeared to have a hard time answering questions from various Republican senators, Gillibrand started off by trying to help Hagel out of another minor jam he had created for himself earlier in the morning, when he called Iran "a legitimate government," by way of explaining why he once voted against designating the country's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. (The characterization was immediately picked up by conservative news outlets.)

"I can understand if you meant a legal entity," she said, adding, "but I do not see Iran or the Iranian government as a legitimate government and I'd like your thoughts on that."

"Thank you, Senator, I should have said 'recognizable,'" he replied, which appeared to satisfy her.

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Hagel has faced a barrage of criticism in the press since his nomination for comments he's made, votes he's cast, and letters he did or didn't sign during his time in the Senate, but today marks the first times those criticisms were directed at him in a public hearing.

New York's senior senator, Chuck Schumer, signaled his early support for Hagel shortly after his nomination, and Gillibrand has said she's inclined to support him too, after a personal meeting they had last week.

As promised, she pressed him on his commitment to Israel, and on the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan. But hers weren't among the toughest questions for Hagel, which mostly came from Hagel's former Republican colleagues in the Senate. (See, for instance, his exchange with his former friend, John McCain.)

Gillibrand, who declared herself "one of the strongest advocates fighting" for increased funding to Israel's national defense, asked if Hagel would ensure full funding for the Iron Dome and other programs in Israel, even if the Defense budget was slashed, or funded through a continuing resolution.

Hagel was generally supportive but also said he "would have to better understand" whatever the budget restrictions might be.

Gillibrand also asked about his ability to address the problem chemical weapons in Syria, with a reference to Hagel's previous comments that some say were insufficiently supportive of Israel during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War.

Hagel reiterated that he does consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

She closed with a question about the high number of reported sexual assaults in the military, pressing him to do more to address the issue.

"I agree, it's not good enough to just say 'zero tolerance.' The whole chain of command needs to be accountable for this all the way to the bottom," he said.

The questioning from Gillibrand was something of a break for Hagel. After she was done, it was Lindsey Graham's turn.

"Name one dumb thing we've been goaded into doing because of the pressure from the Israeli or Jewish lobby," Graham asked.