Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), left, Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Deb Fischer… (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — After a contentious debate, the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday narrowly approved former Sen. Chuck Hagel to be secretary of Defense, moving the fight over President Obama's controversial Cabinet choice to the full Senate.
Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, won the 26-member panel's endorsement with only Democratic votes. All 11 Republicans present voted against his nomination; one GOP senator was absent.
The full Senate will begin considering Hagel's nomination Wednesday, with a final vote possible by week's end. Several GOP senators have threatened to delay the vote, but the White House appears confident it has enough votes to prevail. Hagel, who would replace Leon E. Panetta, already has scheduled his first foreign trip as secretary for Feb. 20.
The two-hour hearing grew heated after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) complained that Hagel did not report the source of $200,000 in income, saying it may have come "directly from North Korea." Cruz acknowledged that he had "no evidence" to support that charge.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman, countered that Hagel had complied with all the committee's financial disclosure requirements, including for foreign sources of income. He chided Cruz, the panel's most junior Republican, for offering "innuendo" without evidence.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) reacted more strongly, calling Cruz's remarks "out of line."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former close friend of Hagel who has been sharply critical of the nominee's views on Iraq, defended him. Like McCain, Hagel served in combat in the Vietnam War, and he was wounded twice in battle.
"Sen. Hagel is an honorable man. He served his country and no one on this committee should impugn his integrity," McCain said.
The tense exchange brought to the surface concerns of several members that the Armed Services Committee, which traditionally has operated in a more bipartisan fashion than other congressional panels, was losing that spirit.
Other Republican criticism focused on issues that emerged before and during Hagel's Jan. 31 confirmation hearing, including his past statements on Iran and Israel, and concerns that he will oversee a significant reduction in Pentagon spending.
Members also cited Hagel's widely panned performance at his confirmation hearing, at which he appeared tentative and unsure at times. McCain called it the worst of any Defense nominee he'd seen.
Even a supporter, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), said she wished he had appeared "feistier."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Hagel's chief critics, said: "The next secretary of Defense is going to have to deal with a world on fire. I just believe that the testimony of Sen. Hagel was not reassuring."
Several Republicans have vowed to delay or derail a final Senate vote on Hagel.
Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) has said he would insist that Hagel overcome a filibuster, which would require the support of 60 senators to end debate and move to a final up-or-down vote.
Graham has threatened to hold Hagel's nomination until the White House answers specific questions about Obama's actions on Sept. 11, 2012, when armed militants stormed a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, and killed four Americans.
Other Republican senators who say they will vote against Hagel also say that they oppose a filibuster.
The White House believes all 53 Democratic senators and the two independents who caucus with the party will support Hagel's confirmation. Two Republicans — Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Mike Johanns of Nebraska — also have said they would vote yes.