WASHINGTON - Barring any new, damaging information, Chuck Hagel has secured the necessary votes for the Senate to confirm him to be the nation's next defense secretary. A vote ending the bitter fight over President Barack Obama's choice for his revamped second-term, national security team is expected next week.
Hagel cleared the threshold when five-term Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama said he would vote for the former GOP senator from Nebraska after joining other Republicans last week in an unprecedented filibuster of the Pentagon nominee. "He's probably as good as we're going to get," Shelby told the Decatur (Ala.) Daily.
Although a Republican, Hagel has faced strong GOP opposition, with many of his former colleagues voting last week to stall the nomination. Republicans have questioned Hagel's support for Israel, tolerance of Iran and willingness to cut the nuclear arsenal. His opposition to the Iraq war after his initial vote for the conflict angered his onetime friend, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
In this Jan. 31 file photo, former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Obama's choice for defense secretary, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Hagel has lined up the necessary votes for the Senate to confirm him next week to be the nation's next defense secretary, after a senior Republican lawmaker said he will back President Barack Obama's choice.
GOP lawmakers demanded more time to review the nomination that a divided Armed Services Committee had approved on a party-line vote.
Shelby's support was a clear sign of weakening Republican opposition, and it prompted two letters within hours from Hagel's fiercest GOP foes. One letter went to the president calling on him to withdraw the nomination, the other to GOP senators pleading with them to stand together against Hagel.
Fifteen Republicans senators wrote that Hagel lacks the bipartisan support and confidence to serve in the vital job of defense secretary.
"The occupant of this critical office should be someone whose candidacy is neither controversial nor divisive," wrote the senators - all opponents of Hagel. Leading the effort was Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the party's No. 2, who is up for re-election next year.
One name missing from the letter was McCain, who has called Hagel unqualified but indicated last Sunday that he wouldn't stand in the way of a Senate vote.
Separately, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, sent a letter to his GOP colleagues urging them to vote again to block the nomination when the Senate returns from its recess next week. He acknowledged the reality that if the GOP fails to block a vote, Hagel proponents have the votes to approve him on an up-or-down vote.
"Make no mistake: A vote for cloture is a vote to confirm Sen. Hagel as secretary of defense," wrote Inhofe. He said that while the Senate traditionally defers to presidents on their Cabinet choices, "our nation is at war. The Senate must insist on confirming only the most effective leaders."