Pentagon nominee Hagel clears key US Senate hurdle

President Barack Obama's embattled pick to head the Pentagon cleared a key hurdle Tuesday when many Republicans ended their obstruction and the Senate agreed to bring Chuck Hagel's nomination to a vote.

Members of the chamber voted 71-27, with 18 Republicans joining the majority Democrats in clearing the way for the Senate to hold a full vote on confirmation later Tuesday.

Hagel's nomination had been held up for more than a week as several Republicans demanded a delay in the process so they could obtain and review information about Hagel's finances and transcripts of speeches that he gave to international organizations in recent years.

But even some of his strongest critics, including Republicans Bob Corker, Lindsey Graham and John McCain, eventually voted to end debate on the nomination and allow an up-or-down floor vote.

Republicans could have stalled one last time, pushing the vote until Wednesday, but they relented and the full vote will occur later Tuesday, as ordered by the Democratic majority.

"We must end this uncertainty about this position," said Carl Levin, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee -- which earlier approved Hagel along a tense, party-line vote only to see the process stalled in the full Senate.

"We need a secretary of defense," Levin said on the Senate floor.

Levin and other Democrats had argued that the delay on Obama's Pentagon pick could cause dangerous harm to US military readiness and credibility at a time of tension in the Middle East, concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions, and North Korea's recent atomic test.

Compounding the problem is the $85 billion in automatic, across-the-board spending cuts set to ravage many military programs, cost thousands of military jobs and lead to furloughs of the Defense Department's 800,000 civilian workers.

But some Republicans remained insistent that despite Hagel's impressive Vietnam War record, his positions on Iran, nuclear weapons and Israel, and his opposition to the US troop surge during the Iraq war, disqualified him to be secretary of defense.

"I fear that the military option (against Iran) will have virtually zero credibility if Senator Hagel becomes secretary of defense because it sends a dangerous message to the regime in Tehran (and) undermines our efforts to prevent their intentions as it seeks to obtain the means necessary to harm both the US and... Israel," Senator Dan Coats said.

It would be "unprecedented," the Republican added, for a new defense chief to take office "without the broad-based bipartisan support and confidence needed to serve effectively in this critical position."

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