WASHINGTON – Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden is one step away from being CIA director after the Senate Intelligence Committee voted Tuesday to approve him for the job.
The full Senate could vote on final approval of Hayden by the end of the week. The White House would like to have Hayden sworn in as outgoing CIA Director Porter Goss leaves the job on Friday.
"General Hayden is an outstanding choice to head the CIA. He is a proven leader and a supremely qualified intelligence professional," said Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., in a written statement.
The committee voted 12-3 to move the nomination forward. As it was a closed-door vote, Roberts did not announce which members voted no. However, FOX News learned that Democratic Sens. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Evan Bayh of Indiana objected to the nominee.
Democratic Sens. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Dianne Feinstein of California and Carl Levin of Michigan all voted for the nominee. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va, recovering from back surgery, cast a vote by proxy in favor of Hayden. All the Republican panel members voted for Hayden.
Mikulski said she voted for Hayden because she had "no question about his competence or personal integrity," but she added, "My confidence in General Hayden should not be interpreted as confidence in this administration."
Levin praised Hayden for standing up to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on intelligence issues. "He has shown some independence and some backbone," Levin said.
Hayden ran the National Security Agency from 1999 to 2005 before becoming the deputy director of national intelligence, the No. 2 man to John Negroponte. As head of the NSA, he was in charge of the president's terror surveillance program. The program has been criticized for listening in without warrants on phone calls between people inside the United States and suspected terrorists abroad.
Hayden has repeatedly defended the legality of the program, which so far has not seemed to hurt his nomination, though many Democrats say the program is on shaky legal footing.
In a statement, Feingold said he voted against Hayden "because I am not convinced that the nominee respects the rule of law and Congress' oversight responsibilities." Feingold said he directly linked his vote to Hayden's oversight of the NSA's warrantless wiretap program, first revealed in news reports last December.
"General Hayden directed an illegal program that put Americans on American soil under surveillance without the legally required approval of a judge. Having finally been briefed about this program last week, I am more convinced than ever that it is illegal," Feingold said.
Bayh said his vote against Hayden was made as a protest.
"My vote against confirming General Hayden was not based upon any objection to the man — he is an outstanding person and a patriot. Nor was my vote in opposition to aggressive surveillance of terror suspects. I support such activities. My vote was an objection to the administration's unwillingness to ensure both our physical security and our civil liberties. We should not be forced to choose," he said in a written statement.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the panel that deals with the legal aspects of the NSA program, said he had a "a very very good talk" with Hayden on Tuesday morning, but did not say whether he would vote for the nominee when the Senate takes up the debate.
"We both understand the fact that the CIA is our premier intelligence agency and also has to reflect the best values of the United States," Leahy told reporters, adding that he has to review his notes from their conversation before making his position known on his vote.
Hayden has two meetings on with Democratic senators on Wednesday — Tom Carper of Delaware and Max Baucus of Montana.
Hayden already has earned respect from many CIA veterans who were pleased by indications that he plans to hire the former deputy director of the CIA's clandestine service, Stephen Kappes, who retired after an unusually public dispute with aides to outgoing Director Porter Goss.
Hayden and Kappes will have to get the CIA's work force back on track. Agency veterans have grumbled that they have wrongly shouldered the blame for mistakes in the run-up to Sept. 11, 2001, even though they say the agency was one of few aggressively going after Al Qaeda.
In a related matter, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said that the Senate Armed Services Committee that he chairs will vote Wednesday on reappointing Hayden as a four-star general. That designation is given to members of the military only when serving in four-star posts. Hayden's position as the second in charge of intelligence maintained that rating. The CIA post does not have that distinction.
FOX News' Molly Hooper contributed to this report.