In confirmation hearings that lasted more than eight hours today for his nomination as secretary of Defense, former senator Chuck Hagel promised to "move forward expeditiously" on extending partner benefits to gay and lesbian service members, reports the Washington Blade.
Responding to a nonstop barrage of tough questions from Republican and Democrat Senators alike, Hagel was repeatedly asked about his commitment to treating all service members — and their families — equally.
Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat from Colorado, asked Hagel about the current National Defense Authorization Act, which includes a provision to "accomodate the conscious, principles, and religious beliefs of all members of the military," noting that he was concerned the language could be used as a license to discriminate against gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members. Sen. Udall asked if Hagel would ensure that the Department of Defense would not discriminate or cause harm to others, to which Hagel replied, "Absolutely."
"I will faithfully, dilligently enforce our laws," continued Hagel. "All men and women deserve the same rights, and I can assure you that that will be a high priority, to enforce that and ensure that in every way, through the entire chain of command and accountability."
Following up on Udall's comments, Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, asked Hagel if that means a military chaplain would be allowed to decline to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony for a gay or lesbian service member.
Noting that nine states now endorse marriage equality, Hagel replied that a chaplain would "certainly" be permitted to "bow out" of a same-sex wedding. "What we don't want, though, as I think is Senator Udall's point, is that we don't want someone to be denied to be married in a chapel or a facility and so on. But certainly, a matter of conscience, yes. But what I'm talking about is a strict interpretation of defending the law, which defends rights."
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, questioned Hagel about his position on a nuclear Iran, the U.S. alliance with Israel, and finally about sexual assault against women and equality gay and lesbian service members.
"When we hear reports that there are upwards of 19,000 sexual assaults in the military against women, it's unacceptable," said Sen. Gillibrand. "We also have finally repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell, but it's difficult for a military spouse to even go to the commissary and be on base or be notified if a spouse is killed in action. I need a strong commitment from you that you will treat our military families and look after them in the way that you would look after your own. I want you to be concerned about every man and woman in the military, that their wellbeing is being looked after, and see real advocacy and leadership, not status quo, not implementing whatever we put forward, but actually fighting for them every single day."
"Well, you have my complete commitment on that," replied Hagel. "I have made that commitment to all the members of the committee that I've spoken to directly and privately. Again, I mentioned that point in my opening statement, you recall. I think I have a pretty clear record on that in my life. I will continue to do that, will do that, and I agree it is not good enough to just say 'zero tolerance.' The whole chain of command needs to be responsible for this, all the way down to the bottom, so I will."
Watch video of Hagel's statements relating to gay and lesbian service members below.
Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) on the NDAA and a "license to discriminate:"
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) on violence against women and equal benefits for same-sex military spouses:
Read about Hagel's opening statements on the following page.
In Hagel's prepared opening statements, released in advance of today's confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., the Republican reiterated his pledge to support gay and lesbian service members and their families to the extent permissable under current law.
“As I’ve discussed with many of you in our meetings, I am fully committed to implementing the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’" said Hagel, "And doing everything possible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all, all our service members."
In a written response to questions posed by the confirmation committee about Hagel's commitment to complete a Pentagon report about military spousal benefits, he promised to move "expeditiously," the Blade reports.
“If confirmed, I will work closely with the Department of Defense civilian and military leadership to move forward expeditiously on this issue and will inform the appropriate Congressional committees of decisions as they are made,” Hagel wrote.
Allyson Robinson, the executive director of OutServe-Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, commended Hagel's stated commitment to equality for gay and lesbian troops and their families.
“After two years of equivocation and delay by Pentagon leadership, it is gratifying to see Senator Hagel show the kind of clear, unambiguous support for our service members and their families we saw today,” Robinson said. “It is an historic day when issues critical to gay and lesbian service members and their families take center stage in a confirmation hearing for secretary of Defense.”