WASHINGTON - The first test of President Obama's second term passed peacefully on Tuesday as his nominee for defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, sat down with the Republican who poses one of his biggest potential hurdles to Senate confirmation, John McCain of Arizona.
By all accounts, the 45-minute talk went well enough for the White House to feel that it has turned the tide in favor of Hagel, whose positions on Israel and Iran have drawn heavy fire from conservatives, pro-Israel groups and other critics.
While McCain did not say how he would vote on Hagel, he said he would reserve judgment until after Hagel's confirmation hearing on Jan. 31. He characterized the meeting as a "frank and candid" exchange between "old friends."
That was enough for administration officials, one of whom said the meeting was a "very positive sign about the trajectory of things." Hagel, who is running a gantlet of meetings, also won a positive response from Sen. Angus King, the newly elected independent from Maine.
Obama's inauguration marked the beginning of the next phase in his campaign to install a new national security team. This week, John Brennan, his choice to be CIA director, will begin meeting with senators, some of whom have raised questions about the administration's policy on the targeted killing of terrorist suspects.
On Thursday, Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator whom Obama selected to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state, is expected to breeze through his hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he still leads.
Hagel is still likely to face tough questioning from the Senate Armed Services Committee. He and McCain, once close friends with the shared experience of being Vietnam veterans, became estranged because of differences over the Iraq war and how to deal with Iran. McCain left little doubt that he raised those issues in their meeting and would do so again during the committee's hearing.
But White House officials say they are increasingly sanguine that Hagel will prevail. Democratic senators have largely fallen into line since he won the blessing of Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the most influential Jewish member of the Senate.
Schumer's endorsement was viewed as crucial by the White House because it allayed concerns among Democrats about Hagel's positions on Israel and his use of the phrase "Jewish lobby" to refer to pro-Israel lobbying groups. On Friday, Hagel met with several Jewish groups, including the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, to try to ease their concerns.
Privately, administration officials figure that Hagel could get as many as 60 votes, a threshold that would allow him to overcome a filibuster. Even if the vote ends up shy of 60, congressional aides said, it is not clear that Republicans will try to block his confirmation, especially if McCain does not stake out a strong position against him.