Video by Leah Villanueva/CNS-TV
WASHINGTON – Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel said he had a “good conversation” with Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin Wednesday, but Cardin was mum on whether the nominee allayed his concerns about past comments on Iran and Israel.
Hagel, a two-term former senator from Nebraska, and Cardin met for 45 minutes ahead of his confirmation hearing on Jan. 31 before the Armed Services Committee. Hagel declined to elaborate on the tone or substance of the meeting, although they did talk about sports.
Cardin requested the meeting to give Hagel a chance to explain his past positions before he’s called to vote on the confirmation. Hagel has met with several other senators, including John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat.
“It’s certainly given (Cardin) some things to think about,” Cardin Communications Director Sue Walitsky said.
Cardin, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, has said he would not “prejudge” the nomination, announced by President Barack Obama on Jan. 7.
“(I) will give him ample opportunity to explain himself and current thinking on the future state and scope of our military, relationships with our allies, including Israel, and how he believes we should address challenges to our national security like Iran,” Cardin said in an earlier statement.
Since Hagel’s name began circulating as a potential successor to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, he has been criticized for several past statements, most prominently his reference to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as “the Jewish lobby” in an interview for a book in 2006.
Hagel has worried some strong Israel supporters by expressing skepticism about the utility of sanctions against Iran and refusing to adopt a whatever-it-takes approach to disarming a potentially-nuclear Iran.
Cardin, one of 11 Jewish senators, has been a strong supporter of Israel since first elected to the House of Representatives in 1986.
Pro-Israel groups and individuals have repaid him for his support, to the tune of $446,948 in campaign contributions over the last six years, ranking him third among all senators over that time, according to MapLight, a nonpartisan research organization.
Cardin trails only McCain and Sen. Mark Kirk, R-IIl., who tops the list with $945,679 in donations from pro-Israel sources.
For his most recent Senate campaign, Cardin received more than $56,000 from pro-Israel political action committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Cardin also serves as one of three honorary chairmen for the National Jewish Democratic Council, which “educates Democratic elected officials and candidates to increase support for Jewish domestic and foreign policy priorities,” according to its website.
During a photography session before their private meeting, Hagel congratulated Cardin on the Baltimore Ravens’ victory Sunday over the New England Patriots, which propelled them to the Super Bowl.
Hagel’s nomination passed a crucial test last week by winning the backing of Schumer, a senior Foreign Relations Committee member and prominent supporter of Israel.
“Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel, I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation,” Schumer said in a statement. “I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him.”
In nominating Hagel, a former businessman and Vietnam War veteran, Obama called him “the leader that our troops deserve.” Obama also praised him for “his independence and commitment to consensus.”