By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate voted on Tuesday to end a delay in the nomination of Chuck Hagel as President Barack Obama's new secretary of defense, clearing the way for his expected approval as civilian leader at the Pentagon within hours.
The Senate voted 71-27 to end debate and move forward, almost two weeks after Republicans launched a filibuster to block Hagel's nomination. It was the first time such a procedural tactic had been used to delay consideration of a nominee for secretary of defense.
Eighteen Republicans joined with Democrats to open the way for a vote by the full Senate, now scheduled for 4:30 p.m. EST (2130 GMT).
The Democratic majority, joined by at least three Republicans, is expected to approve the nomination when the issue gets to the floor. Hagel requires only a simple majority of 51 to be confirmed. Democrats control 55 votes in the Senate, and none has come out against Hagel. And three Republicans also have said they will vote for him.
Hagel's confirmation would end a long and acrimonious partisan battle, one of many between Democrats and Republicans at a time when Congress is widely criticized for its inability to agree on even the most basic measures to run the country.
Many Republicans have fiercely opposed Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and former Republican senator from Nebraska who angered party leaders when he criticized former President George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq war.
Some have charged that Hagel is outside mainstream security thinking and raised questions about whether he is sufficiently supportive of Israel or tough enough on Iran. Opponents also worry that Hagel will be too complicit in efforts by Obama to cut Pentagon spending as a way to deal with yawning U.S. budget deficits.
CALL TO PANETTA
Some of Hagel's most vehement opponents made a last-ditch appeal on the Senate floor for his nomination to be stopped before the vote on Tuesday. They argued that Hagel would be weakened in running the defense department because he will not be confirmed with strong bipartisan support.
James Inhofe, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he had even called Leon Panetta, the retiring secretary of defense, and asked him to remain at the Pentagon.
Panetta, 74, who has made no secret of his desire to retire to his home in California, declined.
Faulting a range of Hagel's past statements on Iran, Israel and other matters, Inhofe also pledged to work for the quick confirmation of another potential nominee if Hagel were withdrawn.
"We have a lot of them out there who would be confirmed in a matter of minutes," he added, naming Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, and Ashton Carter, the current deputy defense secretary, as more acceptable alternatives.
But Democrats blasted Republicans for the delay, when the country is at war and facing a budget crisis, and pushed for the vote to go ahead.
"Politically motivated delays send a terrible signal to our allies and to the world. And they send a terrible signal to tens of thousands of Americans serving in Afghanistan. For the sake of national security, it's time to set aside this partisanship," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing By David Storey, David Brunnstrom and Cynthia Osterman)
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