WASHINGTON — Republican Chuck Hagel’s embattled nomination to serve as the next secretary of Defense cleared its first hurdle on Tuesday, moving out of committee on the way to a full Senate vote.
The Senate Armed Services Committee argued for roughly two hours about Hagel’s qualifications and positions — matters of bipartisan scrutiny since President Barack Obama’s announced the nomination in early January — before voting 14-11, along party lines.
The Nebraska Republican could see a full Senate vote on his future position as head of the Pentagon by the end of the week, according to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
The committee approved the nomination, with all Republicans voting no, except for Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who left the room before the roll call. But Hagel still faces a long battle on the Senate floor, as some Republicans consider a filibuster to stall his nomination.
“I think a lot of [Republicans] are very worried that we don’t have the information we’ve been seeking on Chuck Hagel,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said prior to the meeting. “We believe that the speeches he gave and the money he’s received should be further looked at.”
Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., decided Monday to go ahead with the vote, despite multiple objections from Republicans. During the Tuesday session, tensions flared as Republicans reiterated their concerns over Hagel’s position on Iran, and Democrats fiercely defended the president’s nominee.
“Sen. [Ted] Cruz has gone over the line,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., during the meeting. “He basically has impugned the patriotism of the nominee.” Nelson said Cruz suggested Hagel was “cozy with Iran.”
Critics have questioned Hagel’s stance on Israel, igniting controversy among conservatives and some Jewish groups. He once labeled pro-Israel lobbying groups as the “Jewish lobby.” Hagel has also been attacked for opposing James Hormel’s nomination as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg in 1998 because Hormel was “openly, aggressively gay.”
Republican senators delayed a committee vote last week, saying that Hagel had not submitted sufficient information on his financial ties and past speeches. But Levintold senators that the committee vote would come on Tuesday.
The Hagel vote came hours before President Barack Obama’ State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. According to an administration official, Obama will announce during the speech that 34,000 troops will return from Afghanistan by early next year.
If confirmed, Hagel could have to deal with the automatic spending cuts set to take effect at the end of the month unless Obama and Congress reach a deal on more targeted reductions. The so-called sequester would have significant impact on the Defense Department, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said it was one point of agreement on the Armed Services Committee.
“If there is a risk here, it is that the defeat of this nomination would leave the Department of Defense leaderless at a time when we face immense budgetary challenges and our military is engaged in combat operations overseas,” Levin said.