By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Democratic leaders moved ahead on Monday with plans for a vote on Chuck Hagel's confirmation as secretary of defense, clearing the way for him to become President Barack Obama's new Pentagon chief despite intense opposition from some Republicans.
Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which must approve Hagel's nomination before he is considered by the full Senate, said he intends to ask the committee to vote during a meeting at 2:30 p.m. EST (1930 GMT) on Tuesday.
The committee, in which Democrats control 14 seats to 12 held by Republicans, is expected to approve the nomination.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he expected the full Senate's debate on Hagel's nomination to finish by Thursday, paving the way for a vote in the chamber.
With Democrats controlling a 55-45 Senate majority, Hagel's confirmation is expected.
"We hope on Wednesday and/or Thursday we'll be able to finish the Hagel nomination," Reid said on the Senate floor.
Hagel, 66, a Republican and former Nebraska senator, has been the target of harsh criticism from senators in his own party, who raised questions over whether he is sufficiently supportive of Israel and tough on Iran.
Hagel's testimony before the armed services panel during his January 31 confirmation hearing has also been criticized. Even some Democrats have said he appeared unprepared and at times hesitant during aggressive questioning by Republican committee members.
Hagel's backers, convinced he will succeed the retiring Leon Panetta at the Defense Department, have called Republican delays and threats to prevent a vote on his nomination political posturing that threatens national security.
"We believe firmly that ... Senator Hagel will be confirmed as the next secretary of defense," White House spokesman Jay Carney told a news briefing on Monday.
No Democrat has come out against Hagel, and at least two Republicans - Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Mike Johanns, who holds Hagel's old Nebraska Senate seat - have said they will vote for him.
A few other Republicans have said they would not support the use of any procedural mechanism that would force the Democrats to round up 60 votes to confirm Hagel.
Senator John McCain, who has raised concerns about Hagel, said on Monday he felt the nominee had provided enough information and that it was appropriate for the committee to vote on whether to send the nomination to the full Senate.
He said he would not participate in a Republican walkout over Hagel's nomination threatened by some Hagel opponents.
Levin had hoped to have the committee vote on Hagel's confirmation last week, but delayed amid Republican demands for more information on issues including Hagel's business dealings and past speeches.
Levin has characterized some of the requests as an attempt to set a new standard for a cabinet nominee.
Calling the Hagel fight an example of the intense partisanship stymieing Congress, Democrats also note that no cabinet nomination has ever been subjected to some of the procedural hurdles threatened over Hagel.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has been among the most vocal Hagel opponents, on Sunday threatened to block a vote on his confirmation - and consideration of Obama's nomination of John Brennan as director of the Central Intelligence Agency - until the White House provides more information about the deadly September attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
That hold could prevent a vote by the full Senate from moving to the floor via unanimous consent or a voice vote, a senior Republican Senate aide said.
But the aide noted that, since Democrats control a Senate majority - and appear to have enough votes to overcome any procedural hurdle - it would not stop it.
Graham has previously threatened to block the Hagel vote if Panetta did not appear before the committee to discuss Benghazi.
Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified in a four-hour hearing on Thursday, but Graham said he was still not satisfied.
Graham and some other Republican lawmakers have questioned Obama's response to the September 11, 2012, Benghazi incident, in which the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed.
The Senate Intelligence Committee hopes to hold a vote on Brennan's nomination on Thursday, after a closed-door hearing with Brennan scheduled for Tuesday.
A congressional source said it is possible the Brennan vote could be held up while Intelligence Committee members spar with the White House over the disclosure of sensitive documents related to the Benghazi attack.
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Susan Cornwell, Rachelle Younglai and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Jackie Frank, Philip Barbara and Todd Eastham)