Senate panel OKs Hagel for Pentagon chief

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WASHINGTON -- The Senate Armed Services Committee approved Chuck Hagel's nomination as defense secretary on a party-line vote Tuesday, advancing the first confirmation showdown of President Barack Obama's second term to the full Senate.

The 14-11 vote in the Democratic-led committee underscored continued Republican resistance to Obama's choice of Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska and decorated Vietnam War veteran, to replace the retiring Leon Panetta as the Pentagon's leader.

While GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, who serves on the committee, has threatened to put a "hold" on the nomination -- a tradition that lets any senator delay action -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said he will seek final approval on the floor this week, before a weeklong congressional break.

Obama's choice of Hagel, 66, has been criticized by Republicans over his 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 U.S. troop surge in Iraq. Hagel faced an onslaught of criticisms from Republicans at his confirmation hearing two weeks ago.

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Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who heads the Armed Services panel, has predicted all 55 senators who vote with Democrats will back Hagel on the Senate floor, and at least five Republicans have indicated they would provide the additional votes needed to block a threatened filibuster.

Graham said Hagel's record included "a series of votes and statements that paint an unusually disturbing picture" of a nominee who isn't tough enough on matters such as Iran's nuclear program. Levin said Hagel explained or apologized for some of his more provocative remarks.

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