WASHINGTON – A deeply divided Senate is moving toward a vote on President Barack Obama's contentious choice of Chuck Hagel to head the Defense Department, with the former Republican senator on track to win confirmation after a protracted political fight.
Twelve days after Republicans stalled the nomination, the Senate was slated to vote Tuesday on proceeding with the Hagel selection after GOP lawmakers signaled late Monday they would end their delaying tactics. If Hagel gets the necessary votes, it would just be a matter of time for a simple up-or-down vote, although Republicans could insist on the maximum 30 hours of debate before a final vote.
If confirmed, Hagel would succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and join Obama's retooled national security team just days before automatic, across-the-board budget cuts hit the Pentagon.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he was optimistic about the vote's outcome and said it was critical for the Senate to act quickly.
"Given sequestration, it's really important that we have a secretary of defense who is in place when that hits, if it hits," Levin told reporters Monday. "I want to still say 'if' because I'm a perennial optimist."
Hagel's nomination bitterly split the Senate, with Republicans turning on their former GOP colleague and Democrats standing by Obama's nominee.
The president got no points with the GOP for tapping the former two-term senator and twice-wounded Vietnam combat veteran. Republican lawmakers excoriated Hagel over his past statements and votes. They argued that he was too critical of Israel and too compromising with Iran. They cast the Nebraskan as a radical far out of the mainstream.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., clashed with his onetime friend over his opposition to President George W. Bush's decision to send an extra 30,000 troops to Iraq in 2007 at a point when the war seemed in danger of being lost. Hagel, who voted to authorize military force in Iraq, later opposed the conflict, comparing it to Vietnam and arguing that it shifted the focus from Afghanistan.
McCain called Hagel unqualified for the Pentagon job even though he once described him as fit for a Cabinet post.
Republicans also challenged Hagel about a May 2012 study that he co-authored for the advocacy group Global Zero, which called for an 80 percent reduction of U.S. nuclear weapons and the eventual elimination of all the world's nuclear arms.
The group argued that with the Cold War over, the United States can reduce its total nuclear arsenal to 900 without sacrificing security. Currently, the U.S. and Russia have about 5,000 warheads each, either deployed or in reserve. Both countries are on track to reduce their deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 by 2018, the number set in the New START treaty that the Senate ratified in December 2010.
In an echo of the 2012 presidential campaign, Hagel faced an onslaught of criticism by well-funded, Republican-leaning outside groups that labeled the former senator "anti-Israel" and pressured senators to oppose the nomination. The groups ran television and print ads criticizing Hagel.
Opponents were particularly incensed by Hagel's use of the term "Jewish lobby" to refer to pro-Israel groups. He apologized, saying he should have used another term and should not have said those groups have intimidated members of the Senate into favoring actions contrary to U.S. interests.
The nominee spent weeks reaching out to members of the Senate, meeting individually with lawmakers to address their concerns and seeking to reassure them about his policies.
Hagel's halting and inconsistent performance during some eight hours of testimony at this confirmation hearing last month undercut his cause, but it wasn't a fatal blow.
There was no erosion in Democratic support for the president's choice and Hagel had the backing of three Republicans — Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Richard Shelby of Alabama. Other Republicans were reluctant to block a president's Cabinet choice from getting an up-or-down vote, fearing the precedent.
Democrats hold a 55-45 edge in the Senate, more than enough to confirm Hagel on a majority vote.