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Senate panel OK's Hagel nomination; GOP senators could delay floor vote

The Senate Armed Services Committee votes in favor of the nomination of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary.

After an angry two-hour debate, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to approve the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense Tuesday, setting the stage for a Senate floor vote on his confirmation, possibly later this week.

The vote was along party lines, 14 to 11, with another likely “no” vote from Sen. David Vitter, R-La. to be added later.

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Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said although some Republican senators strongly oppose Obama’s policies, the vote on Hagel nomination “will not change those policies.”

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Former Senator Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing to become the next secretary of defense on Capitol Hill Jan. 31, 2013.

Levin added that he saw a risk that the defeat of Hagel’s nomination would leave the Defense Department “leaderless” at a time of budget pressures and when “our military is engaged in combat operations overseas.”

Levin said that especially on the day that North Korea had detonated a nuclear device, a delay in approving the nomination would “send the exact wrong message to North Korea.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., cited Hagel’s service as an Army soldier in the Vietnam War as a prime reason to vote for him. “That told me right there everything I needed to know – that he would not hesitate to defend this country,” said Manchin.

But a leading Hagel opponent, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said confirming the former Nebraska senator as defense secretary “will make military conflict in the next four years substantially more likely” because it would encourage the Tehran regime to accelerate its nuclear weapons development program.

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee engage in a sharp discussion regarding Chuck Hagel's nomination as defense secretary and his disclosure of personal income.

Cruz also insinuated that Hagel might have given as-yet undisclosed speeches to “extreme or radical groups” or received money from foreign sources or from defense contractors in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Senate rules require a cabinet nominee to disclose fees and payments he received in excess of $5,000 in the two years prior to the nomination. Hagel complied with that rule, but Cruz sought information about payments he’d gotten in the five years prior to his nomination.

Coming to Hagel’s defense, Levin countered that the nominee had told the committee that in the past ten years he has not received any compensation from foreign governments or entities controlled by a foreign government.

Following Cruz’s harsh criticism of Hagel, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., charged that “Sen. Cruz has gone over the line” by implying Hagel was too cozy with Tehran regime. “He basically has impugned the patriotism of the nominee."

Cruz then answered Nelson, denying that he’d impugned Hagel’s patriotism and said that instead he had questioned his firmness in dealing with Iran.

Levin told Cruz if he had uncovered evidence that Hagel had not truthfully answered the panel’s questions or requests for financial information, he should provide it to the committee.

Two weeks ago, Hagel delivered an often stumbling and awkward performance in his confirmation hearing before the committee, repeatedly having to retract, clarify, apologize for, or amend his views or the manner in which he phrased them.

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The low point came when Levin had to correct Hagel’s clarification on President Barack Obama’s position on Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear weapon.

“It was the most unimpressive performance that I have seen in watching many nominees who came before the committee,” said Sen. John McCain, R- Ariz., at Tuesday’s committee meeting, later adding that Hagel’s testimony was “the worst I have seen of any nominee for office.”

McCain said it was “very disturbing” that Hagel had not answered McCain’s question about the success of the U.S. troop surge in Iraq in 2007.

The Arizona Republican also condemned what he called Hagel’s “gratuitous” rhetorical attacks on President George W. Bush.

Another Hagel foe, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said “there’s the left lane in politics, the right lane, and the middle lane – and when it comes to some of the Iranian-Israeli issues, there’s the Chuck Hagel lane … There are very few people who have been this wrong about so many different things.”

Senate Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R- Ky., indicated in comments to reporters a few hours before the committee Tuesday that Republican senators might insist on extended floor debate on the nomination, perhaps requiring a cloture vote, needing 60 senators, to end debate.

“I wouldn't be surprised if we do have a cloture vote on the Hagel nomination,” McConnell said.

He added that “Every time the (the Democratic) majority files cloture, they call it a filibuster. Cloture vote actually is designed to end debate and to go to a vote.”

He explained that, “Sometimes cloture is not invoked because there has not been adequate information that been requested, yet received. Sometimes cloture is not invoked because you want to kill a nomination. There are a number of members on the committee who feel the requests for information have not yet been met.”

There are 55 senators in the Democratic caucus so if the Republicans insist on a cloture vote, then five GOP senators would need to join the Democrats in ending the debate and moving to a confirmation vote.

NBC News Capitol Hill Correspondent Kelly O’Donnell contributed to this story