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Hagel cleared the threshold when Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, a five-term Republican, said he would vote for the former GOP senator from Nebraska after joining other Republicans last week in an unprecedented filibuster of the Pentagon nominee.
''He's probably as good as we're going to get,'' Shelby said in an interview with an Alabama newspaper.
Although a Republican, Hagel has faced strong GOP opposition, with many of his former colleagues voting last week to stall the nomination. Republicans have questioned Hagel's support for Israel, tolerance of Iran, and willingness to cut the nuclear arsenal. His opposition to the Iraq war after his initial vote for the conflict angered his onetime friend, Senator John McCain of Arizona.
GOP lawmakers demanded more time to review the nomination that a divided Armed Services Committee had approved on a party-line vote.
Shelby's support was a clear sign of weakening Republican opposition, and it prompted two letters within hours from Hagel's fiercest GOP foes. One letter went to the president calling on him to withdraw the nomination, the other to GOP senators pleading with them to stand together against Hagel.
Fifteen Republican senators wrote that Hagel lacks the bipartisan support and confidence to serve in the vital job of defense secretary.
''The occupant of this critical office should be someone whose candidacy is neither controversial nor divisive,'' wrote the senators -- all opponents of Hagel. Leading the effort was Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the party's second in command in the Senate, who is up for reelection next year.
One name missing from the letter was McCain, who has called Hagel unqualified but indicated last Sunday that he wouldn't stand in the way of a Senate vote.
Separately, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, sent a letter to his GOP colleagues urging them to vote again to block the nomination when the Senate returns from its recess next week. He acknowledged the reality that if the GOP fails to block a vote, Hagel proponents have the votes to approve him on an up-or-down vote.
''Make no mistake: A vote for cloture is a vote to confirm Senator Hagel as secretary of defense,'' wrote Inhofe. He said that while the Senate traditionally defers to presidents on their Cabinet choices, ''our nation is at war. The Senate must insist on confirming only the most effective leaders.''
The Senate Republicans' closed-door weekly meeting on Tuesday will be crucial to Inhofe's hopes of keeping the GOP in line on Hagel.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney rejected GOP calls for Hagel to withdraw. He complained that Republicans were putting politics ahead of national security, pointing out that the administration wants Hagel to be part of decisions on the size of the US force in Afghanistan as American and coalition forces wind down combat operations.
''This waste of time is not just meaningless political posturing because we firmly believe that Senator Hagel will be confirmed. The waste of time is of consequence,'' Carney said.
The Senate also is holding up the nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director, with Republicans and Democrats seeking more information about the US policy on the use of drones. Hagel and Brennan would join Secretary of State John F. Kerry in Obama's overhauled, second-term national security team.
If confirmed, Hagel, a twice-wounded Vietnam combat veteran, would succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is stepping down after four years first as CIA director and then Pentagon chief.
In a boost for Hagel's nomination, former Republican leader Bob Dole, a decorated World War II veteran, issued a statement Thursday saying, ''Hagel's wisdom and courage make him uniquely qualified to be secretary of defense and lead the men and women of our armed forces.''
Hagel is expected to get all 55 Democratic votes and the support of three Republicans -- Senators Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, and Shelby. Two other Republicans -- Senators Susan M. Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska -- voted last week to allow the nomination to move ahead and are expected to do the same next week, giving Hagel the requisite 60 votes out of 100 necessary to end a filibuster.
An up-or-down vote on confirmation, with only a majority necessary, could occur as early as Wednesday.
SOURCE: Donna Cassata
The ASSOCIATED PRESS
The ASSOCIATED PRESS