WASHINGTON -- After a sometimes contentious debate, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted on party lines and narrowly approved the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel to be secretary of Defense, moving the bitter fight over President Obama’s Cabinet choice to the full Senate.
Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, won the 26-member panel’s endorsement with only Democratic votes. All 11 Republicans present voted against his nomination, with one absent.
The full Senate could vote as early as Thursday to confirm Hagel, although several GOP senators have threatened to seek delays. Hagel already has scheduled his first foreign trip on Feb. 20.
The two-hour hearing grew heated after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) complained that Hagel did not report the source of $200,000 in income, saying it may have come "directly from North Korea." He admitted that he had "no evidence" to support that charge.
Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) countered that Hagel had complied with all the committee's financial disclosure requirements, including those for foreign sources of income. He chided Cruz, the panel's most junior Republican, for offering "innuendo" without evidence.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) reacted more strongly, calling Cruz's remarks "out of line."
"I'm not saying you got to vote for him," she said. "But I will say this: I think we've got to be really careful with inferences that would leave the impression that this man would somehow purposely evade or purposely mislead this committee as to his relationship with any foreign government."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), a former close friend of Hagel who has been sharply critical of his views on Iraq, praised him Tuesday. Like McCain, Hagel served in combat in the Vietnam War and was wounded twice in battle.
"Sen. Hagel is an honorable man. He served his country and no one on this committee should impugn his integrity," he said.
The tense exchange brought to the surface simmering concern that the Armed Services Committee, which traditionally has operated in a more bipartisan fashion than other congressional panels, was losing that spirit.
Other Republican criticism focused on issues that emerged before and during Hagel's Jan. 31 confirmation hearing, including his past statements on Iran and Israel, and concerns that he will oversee a significant drawdown in Pentagon spending.
Members also cited Hagel's widely panned performance at his confirmation hearing, when he appeared tentative and unsure at times. McCain called it the worst of any Defense nominee he'd seen.
Even a supporter, Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), said she wished he had appeared "feistier."
"The next secretary of Defense is going to have to deal with a world on fire," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Hagel's chief critics. "I just believe that the testimony of Sen. Hagel was not reassuring."
Levin warned that the Senate could not take the risk of rejecting the president's pick for Pentagon chief, particularly after North Korea's underground nuclear test overnight raised fresh concerns of instability in Northeast Asia.
"Such an absence of senior leadership [at the Pentagon] would be unlikely to benefit either our national defense or our men and women in uniform," Levin said.
Several GOP members on the committee have threatened to delay or derail a final vote in the Senate.
Inhofe has said he would insist that Hagel overcome a filibuster, which would require support of 60 senators, before moving to a final up-or-down vote.
Graham has threatened to hold Hagel’s nomination until the White House answers specific questions about Obama’s actions on Sept. 11, when armed militants stormed a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, and killed four Americans.
It appears Hagel has enough votes to win confirmation. The White House believes all 53 Democratic senators and the two independents who caucus with the party will support Hagel’s confirmation. Two Republicans – Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Mike Johanns of Nebraska – have also said they would vote yes.
Other Republican senators who say they will ultimately vote against Hagel have nonetheless said they oppose a filibuster.