From almost the moment Barack Obama named Chuck Hagel to helm the Defense Department, the media announced Hagel faced a tough battle for his Senate confirmation, hinging on the voices and, eventually, votes of New York's delegation. Sen. Chuck Schumer led the way, repeatedly expressing concerns about Hagel's Mideast positions, followed by his junior colleague Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. The two Democrats were even targeted today in a full-page ad in the New York Times by Bill Kristol's far-right Emergency Committee for Israel urging a 'no' vote. But the timing of the ad—which can run as much as $150,000—was ill-fated: Today, Schumer came out in support of Hagel. Gillibrand, too, is not poised to buck the president on his defense pick. And with 55 Democrats in the Senate set to fall in line, only a few of Hagel's fellow Republicans will need to be peeled off to block a filibuster—a possibility that sources say is not even being discussed by Republicans on the Hill.
The turn came recently when the administration took over the work being done to bolster Hagel in the run-up to confirmation hearings and a vote, according to a source close to the process, scheduling the former Nebraska Senator's phone calls and meetings with his former colleagues. One of the first powwows was with Schumer. A report in the New York Times Sunday night ran down Hagel's links to Jewish organizations and concerns over Israel and Iran policies. Today, though, Schumer gave his support: "I am currently prepared to vote for his nomination," Schumer said, after their meeting Monday. "I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him." Hagel already spoke by phone to Gillibrand, too, and they'll meet soon. "She spoke to him briefly on the phone last week," said Gillibrand's communications Glen Caplin. "They had a brief conversation, I'm not going to characterize that conversation. She does look forward to meeting with him in person and discussing his views on a range of issues."
Before news of Schumer's support this morning, Hagel-backers already viewed it as a foregone conclusion: "At the end of the day, Chuck Schumer, despite obvious sensitivities on Israel and some other issues, will find that Sen. Hagel will assure him that the differences between them are negligible and Chuck Schumer will vote to confirm him," said the foreign policy hand Steve Clemons, Washington editor-at-large of the Atlantic and a personal friend of Hagel's, in an interview yesterday. "I think that Chuck Schumer is a really outstanding leader of the United States Senate and he does not and cannot afford to live in a policy silo on any particular issue."
Others suggested Schumer was always going to fall in line. "Schumer has to play a game. He has to sound like he's actually listening to those New Yorkers," said a Democratic Hill aide, refering to Schumer's reported meetings with opponents of the nomination. "He knows how to play it right. If he was opposed, he'd be whipping." Clearly, whipping votes against Hagel Schumer was not. Another Democratic aide told me, "I think most Democratic senators think the President should have the team around him that he wants, but will ask questions to ensure the candidate is qualified." (Both accounts were confirmed by another former Democratic Hill aide.) A Republican activist was more blunt: "I was told by people that this is all set up, and Schumer's going to endorse him," the source said. "He's got the headlines he wants."
The Schumer announcement could open the Democratic floodgates: other prominent Democrats, too, have recently come out in favor of Hagel. Sen. Barbara Boxer (CA) announced her support after a phone conversation and an exchange of letters. With a leader of the Republican opposition, Sen. John McCain (AZ), pledging this weekend not to block the nomination, there seems to be little left to the tough confirmation battle the media—abetted by Hagel's right-wing critics—predicted.