WASHINGTON // The Senate cleared the way today for confirmation of Chuck Hagel to be the nation's next defences secretary after Republicans dropped their unprecedented delay of President Barack Obama's choice to head the Pentagon.
On a vote of 71-27, the Senate ended a Republican filibuster, setting the stage for the widely expected confirmation of the former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska later in the day. Eighteen Republicans joined 51 Democrats and two independents to move forward with the contentious nomination.
If confirmed, Mr Hagel would succeed Leon Panetta and join Mr Obama's retooled national security team of Secretary of State John Kerry and CIA director-designate John Brennan.
Mr Hagel's nomination bitterly split the Senate, with Republicans turning on their former GOP colleague and Democrats standing by Mr Obama's nominee.
The Senate majority leader Harry Reid asked what the filibuster had done for "my Republican colleagues".
"Twelve days later, nothing. Nothing has changed," the Nevada Democrat said. "Senator Hagel's exemplary record of service to his country remains untarnished."
Mr Reid blamed partisanship over Obama's choice for the delay. Both Mr Reid and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, a Democrat, warned that it was imperative to act just days before automatic, across-the-board budget cuts hit the Pentagon.
"The Pentagon needs a seasoned leader to implement those cuts," Mr Reid said.
Republicans argued that while Mr Hagel served with distinction in Vietnam, his record on Israel, Iran and nuclear weapons disqualified him for the top Pentagon job. Last week, 15 Republican senators sent a letter to Mr Obama asking him to withdraw the Hagel nomination.
Dan Coats, a Republican senator, cited Mr Hagel's at-times halting testimony at his confirmation hearing and his misstatement that the US has a policy of containment toward Iran rather than thwarting Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
"He has an embarrassing lack of knowledge about our policy toward Iran," Mr Coats said.
In the course of the rancorous, seven-week nomination fight, Republicans have insinuated that Mr Hagel has a cosy relationship with Iran and received payments for speeches from extreme or radical groups. Those comments have drawn a rebuke from Democrats and some Republicans.
Mr Hagel faced an onslaught of criticism by well-funded, Republican-leaning outside groups that labelled the former senator "anti-Israel" and pressured senators to oppose the nomination. The groups ran television and print ads criticising Mr Hagel.
Opponents were particularly incensed by Mr Hagel's use of the term "Jewish lobby" to refer to pro-Israel groups. He apologised, saying he should have used another term and should not have said those groups have intimidated members of the Senate into favouring actions contrary to US interests.