Senate Democrats are pushing ahead with a vote Tuesday on Chuck Hagel's nomination to be defense secretary, rejecting Republican demands for more financial information from Hagel in a politically charged fight over President Barack Obama's second-term national security team.
In a brief statement, Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the panel would meet Tuesday afternoon with the "intention to vote on the nomination after the members have an opportunity for discussion." Levin had hoped to hold a committee vote last Thursday, but postponed it amid complaints from Republicans that Hagel hadn't sufficiently answered questions about his personal finances.
Not all Republicans shared that view, however.
"I have examined the information and responses to members' questions that Sen. Hagel has provided to the committee, and I believe that he has fulfilled the rigorous requirements that the committee demands of every presidential nominee to be secretary of defense," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in a statement Monday backing Levin's plans for a vote.
McCain's expression of confidence in Hagel's answers was a crucial counterpoint to GOP criticism of the nominee, who still faces Republican threats to block or delay his selection. McCain, the panel's former top Republican, has said he's leaning against supporting his former colleague and friend, but he made clear he would not participate in any walkout by committee Republicans over a Hagel vote.
McCain also met privately late Monday with some committee Republicans and urged them not to filibuster the nomination, saying it would set a bad precedent and pointing out that someday the roles could be reversed with a Republican president and a GOP-led Senate.
"I'm encouraging my colleagues if they want to vote against Sen. Hagel that's one thing and that's a principled stand," McCain told a group of reporters. "We do not want to filibuster. We have not filibustered a Cabinet appointee in the past and I believe that we should move forward with his nomination, bring it to the floor and vote up or down."
Obama tapped Hagel, a former two-term Nebraska Republican senator and twice-wounded combat veteran in Vietnam, to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is stepping down after serving as CIA director and Pentagon chief in the president's first term.
Hagel, 66, has faced strong opposition from Republicans over his past statements and votes on Israel, Iran, nuclear weapons and Iraq, in which he initially backed the war but later opposed it.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Monday that the full Senate could vote either Wednesday or Thursday on the nomination, dismissing talk of a filibuster of a Cabinet nominee as unprecedented.
"There's never in the history of the country ever been a filibuster on a defense secretary, and I'm confident there won't be on this one," Reid said at the start of the Senate session.
Democrats hold a 14-12 edge on the Armed Services panel and it's likely that Hagel will win approval on a party-line vote just hours before Obama delivers his State of the Union address at the Capitol.
Two Republicans on the committee — Sens. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — have threatened to use their power to stop the nomination.
"No one's anxious to try to string this thing out and make it longer," Inhofe said. He added that he felt a responsibility "to do what I can to see that Chuck Hagel is not confirmed as secretary of defense."
Graham signaled that he would hold up Senate confirmation of Hagel and CIA Director-designate John Brennan if he doesn't get more answers about the fatal assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, last year.
Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the Sept. 11 attack.
"I'm insisting that the president answer ... what he did that night. That's all. It would take five minutes to answer my question," Graham told reporters. "It's the only leverage I have."
The White House pushed back on Monday, with spokesman Jay Carney insisting that the Obama administration had answered lingering questions about Libya and the president's actions on that fateful day.
"What is unfortunate here is the continuing attempt to politicize an issue, in this case through nominees that themselves had nothing to do with Benghazi, and to do so in a way that only does harm to our national security interests," Carney said. "Senator Hagel, Mr. Brennan, they need to be confirmed."
All 55 Democrats are expected to back Hagel and two Republicans — Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Mike Johanns of Nebraska — have said they will vote for the nominee. At least five Republicans have said they would oppose a filibuster of the president's Cabinet pick, ensuring that the Hagel nomination has at least 60 votes to move forward.
In a letter on Friday, Levin rejected Republican demands for additional financial information as beyond the scope for nominees, Republican or Democrat.
"The committee cannot have two different sets of financial disclosure standards for nominees, one for Sen. Hagel and one for other nominees," the Michigan Democrat wrote.
His letter was in response to a letter from 26 Senate Republicans to Hagel insisting that they needed more information before they could vote on his nomination. Among those signing the GOP letter were Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Inhofe.
Republicans have asked Hagel to disclose all compensation of more than $5,000 from the past five years — three years more than the law or committee rules require. The Republican senators also want Hagel to disclose whether any of the eight organizations and businesses he was affiliated with after leaving the Senate received money from foreign sources.
But Hagel has already told the committee that neither he nor his wife has received during the last 10 years any compensation from, or been involved in any business transactions with, a foreign government or an entity controlled by a foreign government, Levin wrote.