Hagel defense nomination passes Senate panel

A divided Senate panel approved Chuck Hagel on Tuesday to be the next US secretary of defense, a key step in a process that could see the controversial nominee confirmed as early as this week.

The Senate Armed Services Committee split along party lines to vote 14 to 11, with one abstention, to approve the former Republican senator whose positions on Iran, Israel and the Iraq war sparked concerns by fellow conservatives.

If approved by the full Senate, Hagel would replace outgoing Pentagon chief Leon Panetta.

"We will now favorably report the nomination of Chuck Hagel to the Senate," said committee chairman Carl Levin after a tense two-hour hearing that saw lawmakers verbally sparring over Hagel's qualifications, his occasionally evasive responses to senators' questions and even his patriotism.

Some of the harshest criticism came from Senator Lindsey Graham, who said Hagel was well outside the left or right lanes of American politics on foreign policy.

"When it comes to some of the Iranian (and) Israeli issues, there's the Chuck Hagel lane. He's in a league of his own, guys," Graham said.

"I say dumb things every day."

With Hagel, it has been "a series of things, a series of votes, an edge about him that makes many of us very unnerved about his selection at a time when the world is on fire," he added.

Shortly before the vote, Graham told reporters he would seek to put a procedural block on Hagel's confirmation vote, but Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid brushed aside the threat, saying he expected to bring a vote to the Senate floor "this week."

Should Reid be forced to overcome Graham's blocking attempt, a vote to proceed would require 60 votes, rather than the simple majority in the 100-seat body if there was a straight up or down vote on confirmation.

Levin told the committee that despite Republican efforts to portray Hagel as "outside the mainstream," the Vietnam War veteran "has received broad support from a wide array of senior statesmen and defense and foreign policy organizations."

"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 warned.

"Such an absence of senior leadership would be unlikely to benefit either our national defense or our men and women in uniform."