WASHINGTON -- Congress' only openly gay senator intends to back former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) for Defense Secretary, confident that he will support equal benefits for all service members.
"I expect to support Sen. Hagel," Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) told The Huffington Post on Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
Last month, Baldwin wasn't so sure. Speaking on MSNBC, she said she first wanted to hear Hagel speak about how he has "evolved" on the issue of LGBT rights.
In 1998, Hagel referred to one of President Bill Clinton's ambassador nominees, James Hormel, as "openly, aggressively gay," and while in the Senate, he voted against the priorities of many gay rights groups.
But he recently apologized to Hormel and assured Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in a letter that he fully supported the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and would fight for equal benefits for same-sex military families.
Baldwin said that after meeting with Hagel recently, she felt reassured by his stance on LGBT issues.
"I had a chance to have a very good talk with Sen. Hagel a couple of weeks ago and was pleased with our conversation and felt confidence in him and will support him," she said on Tuesday.
Hagel's record on gay rights initially unsettled some LGBT groups, although many said they believed he had evolved in his thinking. But the Log Cabin Republicans and an anonymous organization called Use Your Mandate both ran ads hitting Hagel on his record.
On Monday, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that he was extending certain benefits to gay and lesbian service members and their families, although he acknowledged that he was not able to do more while the Defense of Marriage Act -- which bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages -- remains the law of the land.
On Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved Hagel's nomination in a party-line 14-11 vote. He now needs to pass the full Senate in order to be confirmed.
UPDATE: 1:45 p.m. -- Baldwin released a full statement on Hagel Wednesday afternoon:
Protecting our national security with a strong defense is a responsibility I have always taken seriously. We face big challenges here at home and abroad, including our fight against terrorism, dealing with instability in the Middle East and North Africa, confronting nuclear weapons proliferation, addressing the growing threat of cyber-attacks, and bringing our troops home from Afghanistan to their families in a safe and responsible manner. As we work to meet these challenges, America must maintain our ability to lead and strengthen our alliances around the world. For over a decade our military and federal budget has been stretched thin fighting two long wars. Now as we face budget challenges, the Defense Department must find ways to be more efficient and effective in maintaining a 21st century military. When President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, I had questions on a number of issues, as did many of my colleagues. Our questions deserved answers and his nomination demanded a fair and thorough review.
I have now had an opportunity to meet with Senator Hagel personally and speak with him directly about the challenges the Department of Defense will confront and his vision for leading the Pentagon. In our meeting, Senator Hagel showed refreshing sincerity and candor. In addition, he presented a quality that is not seen enough of in Washington and will serve our country well in the role of Secretary of Defense, the humility to admit mistakes and learn from them.
After my meeting with Senator Hagel and the confirmation hearing process, I am confident that he will serve as an effective member of President Obama’s national security team and carry out the President’s vision of a 21st century military that reflects our American values. I will vote to confirm President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel. I have no doubt that he will serve as Secretary of Defense with the same integrity that he served our country as a war hero who earned two Purple Hearts. As a decorated war veteran, he has the military experience necessary to understand the needs of our troops and be an advocate for the men and women in our military. Senator Hagel has the national security qualifications and commitment to lead our service men and women that the people of Wisconsin and America want and deserve in their Secretary of Defense.