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Most Gay Rights Groups Skeptical, but Open to Hagel

As Chuck Hagel prepares for his confirmation hearing to be the next Defense secretary, the former senator can expect a barrage of questions on his support for openly gay servicemembers and his plans for extending certain benefits to gay and lesbian servicemembers and their families.

Hagels path to nomination and, now, confirmation has been muddied in part by comments he made 15 years ago about the nominee for U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, James Hormel, whom the Nebraska Republican then called openly, aggressively gay.

Last month, Hagel issued an apology for those comments, calling his remarks insensitive and assuring his support of open service and his commitment to gay and lesbian military families.

But his nomination comes at a pivotal time, just over two years after the repeal of dont ask, dont tell, a law he supported during his time in the Senate.

For many leading gay rights advocacy groups and their supporters on Capitol Hill, support for Hagels nomination will ultimately come down to how he fields questions when he appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee in the coming weeks.

This is one nominee for which the hearings will be critical because ... we are going to be very interested in what he has to say on a whole host of different issues, said Fred Sainz, vice president for communications at the Human Rights Campaign.

The HRC and other groups will be watching to see how Hagels views on gay issues have evolved over the past 15 years, as have many Americans since the 1990s.

Hagel got low marks from the HRC during his two terms in the Senate, but Sainz said he does not consider him to be a fire-breather on gay issues. Meanwhile, Hagels clear support from President Barack Obama, who pushed for the dont ask, dont tell repeal and supports gay marriage, has prompted the HRC and other groups to take a measured approach to the nomination.

It is entirely understandable that an individual could have said really ignorant things back 15 years ago ... and understand how those statements would be inappropriate in todays context, Sainz said.

Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin, who last week became the first openly gay senator, has said she wants to talk to Hagel to see how his views have evolved since 1998. Speaking on MSNBC on Monday, Baldwin signaled that Hagels stance on gay issues is all the more significant because of the repeal of the ban on openly gay servicemembers.

We need to see that implemented successfully, she said.

For many gay rights advocates, Hagels nomination is less about his previous statements than it is about his commitment to equal benefits for gay and lesbian servicemembers and their families, a top priority since the repeal of the 1993 law.

Its one thing for Sen. Hagel to say he is committed to LGBT military families, but actions speak louder than words, said Stephen Peters, president of the American Military Partner Association.

At least one gay advocacy group, the Log Cabin Republicans, is openly trying to scuttle Hagels nomination. The group took out an ad in The New York Times in late December and another one in The Washington Post on Monday aimed at dissuading Obama from nominating Hagel.

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