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United States

US Defense Secretary nominee Hagel passes Senate panel

A US Senate panel has approved Chuck Hagel as President Barack Obama's new Secretary of Defense. The move sets the stage for his confirmation in front of the full Senate, possibly this week.

The Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday voted 14-11 along party lines, advancing the former Republican Senator from Nebraska's confirmation to take over from Leon Panetta as the head of the Defense department.

His confirmation is expected to pass in the full Senate, where Obama's Democrats hold a majority.

Hagel, 66, has been criticized by some members of his own party for not being sufficiently supportive of Israel and tough on Iran. The twice-wounded Vietnam War combat veteran has often dissented on his conservative party on defense and foreign policy.

Republican Senator John McCain has led the charge against Hagel, and continued to criticize his former colleague during a two-hour committee debate Tuesday.

"You can only judge somebody by their past performance in order to predict what their future performance will be," McCain said. "His performance before this committee was the worst I have seen of any nominee for office. He refused to answer a simple, straightforward question as to whether the (2007 Iraq troop) surge was a success or not, and whether he supported it or not. That (surge) was a key moment in the history of this country."

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said there were "very few people who have been this wrong about so many different things, and I cannot in good conscience support this nomination, because I think it's sending the worst possible signal to our friends and our enemies alike."

Senator Jay Shaheen, a Democrat, defended Hagel.

"For anybody to suggest that he's not qualified … to be the Secretary of Defense, I think, is just not accurate and reflects certainly a different understanding of his background and his experience than I have," she said.

The committee's chairman, Democrat Carl Levin, said a heated confirmation process would not weaken Hagel, diminish his ability to work with the committee in the future, nor harm relations among committee members.

"Sometimes you come out stronger from these kinds of fights," he told reporters after the hearing.

Levin added that he hoped for a full Senate vote on Hagel's nomination by the end of this week. However, he said it could be altered if Republicans use a procedural hurdle, known as a filibuster, to delay it.

Should Democrats be forced to fight Republican attempts to block Hagel's nomination, a vote to proceed would require 60 votes rather than a simple majority required in the 100-seat Senate, for a straight up or down vote on confirmation.

dr/jr (Reuters, dpa, AFP)