WASHINGTON: Senators agreed on a path towards confirmation of Chuck Hagel as US defence secretary, after Republicans said they will drop opposition to acting on his nomination once lawmakers return from a weeklong break.
An initial effort on Thursday to cut off debate fell short of the 60 votes needed because Republicans demanded more time.
The vote on the so-called cloture motion was 58-40, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid immediately announced the next roll call would be held on Feb.26.
Thursday’s Republican move to delay action marked the first time the minority party in the Senate had threatened a filibuster to block a nominee to lead the Pentagon.
“I will vote on cloture the day we get back, and I believe enough of my colleagues will do the same,” Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has led criticism of Hagel, said on the Senate floor.
“This is not an effort to kill this nomination,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s No.2 Republican leader, said on the Senate floor.
Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina were among Republicans who said on Thursday that they would vote next time to end the debate.
Once debate is cut off, Hagel would have the majority he needs for confirmation because Democrats control 55 votes in the 100-member Senate.
President Barack Obama’s choice of Hagel, 66, to replace retiring Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has been challenged by Republicans because of the former Republican senator’s past opposition to unilateral sanctions against Iran, his comments about the influence of what he once called “the Jewish lobby,” and his opposition to the 2007 US troop surge in Iraq.
By delaying a confirmation vote, Senate Republicans have given the White House an opportunity to cast the party as obstructing Obama’s assembly of a second-term national security team.
Republicans insisted that the administration must first answer more questions about its handling of a terrorist attack last September on a US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
“Senate Republicans put political posturing ahead of our nation’s security,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.
“Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, it got worse,” Reid said after the GOP forced the delay.
Republicans said Reid took a risky move in scheduling the vote when some members of their party wanted more information about a confirmation approved by the Senate Armed Services on a party-line 14-11 vote just two days earlier.
Senator Ted Cruz, a first-term Tea Party-backed Texas Republican, has demanded more information about Hagel’s finances and speaking engagements.
Graham had called for a delay until the White House explained what Obama did personally to encourage military action during the Sept.11 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
In a letter to Graham and two other Republican senators, White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Libya’s interim President Mohammed Yussef Magariaf “on behalf of the president on the evening of Sept.11, 2012, to coordinate additional support to protect Americans in Libya and access to Libyan territory.”