WASHINGTON - A US Senate panel approved Chuck Hagel as
President Barack Obama's new secretary of defense on Tuesday, setting the stage
for a vote on his confirmation by the full Senate, possibly this
After more than two hours of often intense debate, the Senate Armed
Services Committee voted 14-11 along party lines to advance the former
Republican senator's confirmation to succeed Leon Panetta as the civilian leader
at the Pentagon.
Senator David Vitter, a Republican of Louisiana, did not
cast a vote. Vitter had said he felt the process was too
Democratic Senator Carl Levin, the committee's chairman, told
reporters that he hoped for a vote by the full Senate on Hagel's nomination by
the end of this week. However, he said it could be pushed past the weekend if
Republicans resort to procedural tactics to delay it.
Harry Reid, the
Senate Majority leader, said he hoped debate on Hagel's nomination would start
The nomination of Hagel, 66, has met stiff opposition from
some of his fellow Republicans, who raised questions about whether he was
sufficiently supportive of Israel, tough on Iran and capable enough to lead the
But he is likely to be confirmed.
No Democrat has come
out against Hagel, and at least two Republicans - Senator Thad Cochran of
Mississippi and Mike Johanns, who holds Hagel's old Nebraska Senate seat - have
said they will vote for him.
A few other Republicans have said they would
not support the use of any procedural mechanism that would force the Democrats
to round up 60 votes to confirm Hagel.
The hearing lapsed at times into
heated exchanges between Democrats and Republicans. At one point, Republican
James Inhofe accused Hagel of being "cozy" with Iran because, as he said, Tehran
had backed his nomination.
"He's endorsed by them. You can't get any
cozier than that," Inhofe said, prompting gasps within the hearing room and
protests from Democrats who said he was impugning the patriotism of the
Levin insisted the confirmation battle
would not weaken Hagel, diminish his ability to work with the committee going
forward nor harm the ability of Democrats and Republicans on the panel to
"Sometimes you come out stronger from these kinds of fights,"
he told reporters.
Hagel's testimony before the armed services panel
during his Jan. 31 confirmation hearing has also been criticized. Even some
Democrats have said he appeared unprepared and at times hesitant during
aggressive questioning by Republican committee members.
committee meeting, several Democrats stressed the right of the president to
choose members of his cabinet, despite objections from the other
"As much as some people in this room don't like it, he was elected
president of the United States by the American people and he has selected an
honorable veteran, a Republican, who has served this country in various
capacities," Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill said.
criticized Hagel's past statements such as his opposition to President George W.
Bush's "surge" sending thousands more troops to Iraq. Some suggested Hagel had
not been forthcoming and repeated demands for more information on his
"There are very few people who have been this wrong about so
many different things," said Senator Lindsey Graham, who has been one of the
most vocal opponents of Hagel's nomination.
Levin praised the nominee's
record and urged his speedy confirmation as the country faces steep budget
problems and international threats such as a nuclear test by North Korea just
hours before the hearing.
"We need a secretary of defense. We have the
use of a nuclear weapon in North Korea," Levin said.
scornful attacks on Hagel, Republicans on the committee did not follow through
on a threat to walk out.
Other Republicans have threatened to use a
procedural tactic known as a filibuster to try to keep the full Senate from
considering Hagel's nomination this week. The Senate begins a week-long recess
But it was not immediately clear that they would follow
through on that threat, which would be almost unprecedented in the nearly 100
years since the Senate started its modern filibuster rules.
Senate leadership aide said no Republican had publicly declared an intention to
try to block the vote.