Pentagon nominee Hagel clears key US Senate hurdle

President Barack Obama's pick to head the Pentagon was virtually assured of confirmation Tuesday when dubious Republican lawmakers finally agreed to bring Chuck Hagel's nomination to a vote.

Senators voted by 71 to 27, with 18 Republicans joining the majority Democrats, to approve a procedural measure that cleared the way for the Senate to hold a full vote on confirmation later in the day.

Hagel's nomination had been held up for more than a week after several Republicans demanded information about Hagel's finances and transcripts of speeches that he gave to international organizations.

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

The likely confirmation will end a seven-week saga that saw the 66-year-old former Republican senator unsettled in congressional testimony when critics savaged his record on issues related to the Middle East.

He also survived a tense committee vote that saw him subjected to such harsh criticism that fellow Vietnam War veteran McCain was moved to warn fellow Republicans not to impugn the patriotism of "an honorable man."

Republicans could have stalled one last time, pushing the vote until Wednesday, but they relented, allowing the full vote to take place Tuesday.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid sounded relieved, but could not help getting in a few more digs at his opponents.

"Senator Hagel is the first nominee for secretary of defense to be filibustered in the history of the United States," Reid said.

"Politically motivated delays send a terrible signal to our allies and to the world," as well as to US troops serving in Afghanistan, Reid said. "For the sake of national security, it's time to set aside this partisanship."

The floor vote will require a simple majority.

"We must end this uncertainty about this position," said Carl Levin, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which had itself only approved Hagel after a tense party-line vote.

Levin and Reid argued that the delay 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 $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts set to kick-in on Friday, a measure that would ravage many military programs and lead to furloughs of the Defense Department's 800,000 civilian workers.

Despite Hagel's impressive Vietnam War record, some Republicans insist his previous allegedly dovish position on Iran and supposedly lukewarm support for US-ally Israel disqualify him to be defense chief.

Senator Dan Coats warned America's implicit threat to take military action against Iran if it continues to seek nuclear weapons "will have virtually zero credibility if Senator Hagel becomes secretary of defense."

Although Hagel had a mostly conservative record as a senator, his Republican colleagues have never forgiven him for his outspoken criticism of president George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq war.

He called the administration's effort at the time "beyond pitiful" and when Bush planned a surge of additional troops in 2006, Hagel said it would be "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam."

Hagel's confirmation will mark a double victory for Obama, whose pick for Treasury secretary, Jack Lew, passed the Senate Finance Committee despite some qualms about his reputation as a doctrinaire Democrat with ties to Wall Street.

The committee voted 19 to 5 in favor of Lew, Obama's former chief of staff and a budget director for then-president Bill Clinton.