By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Senate panel approved Chuck Hagel as President Barack Obama's new secretary of defense on Tuesday, setting the stage for a vote on his confirmation by the full Senate, possibly this week.
After more than two hours of often intense debate, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 14-11 along party lines to advance the former Republican senator's confirmation to succeed Leon Panetta as the civilian leader at the Pentagon.
Senator David Vitter, a Republican of Louisiana, did not cast a vote. Vitter had said he felt the process was too rushed.
Democratic Senator Carl Levin, the committee's chairman, told reporters that he hoped for a vote by the full Senate on Hagel's nomination by the end of this week. However, he said it could be pushed past the weekend if Republicans resort to procedural tactics to delay it.
Harry Reid, the Senate Majority leader, said he hoped debate on Hagel's nomination would start on Wednesday.
The nomination of Hagel, 66, has met stiff opposition from some of his fellow Republicans, who raised questions about whether he was sufficiently supportive of Israel, tough on Iran and capable enough to lead the Pentagon.
But he is likely to be confirmed.
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.
The hearing lapsed at times into heated exchanges between Democrats and Republicans. At one point, Republican James Inhofe accused Hagel of being "cozy" with Iran because, as he said, Tehran had backed his nomination.
"He's endorsed by them. You can't get any cozier than that," Inhofe said, prompting gasps within the hearing room and protests from Democrats who said he was impugning the patriotism of the decorated veteran.
Levin insisted the confirmation battle would not weaken Hagel, diminish his ability to work with the committee going forward nor harm the ability of Democrats and Republicans on the panel to cooperate.
"Sometimes you come out stronger from these kinds of fights," he told reporters.
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.
During the committee meeting, several Democrats stressed the right of the president to choose members of his cabinet, despite objections from the other party.
"As much as some people in this room don't like it, he was elected president of the United States by the American people and he has selected an honorable veteran, a Republican, who has served this country in various capacities," Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill said.
Republicans criticized Hagel's past statements such as his opposition to President George W. Bush's "surge" sending thousands more troops to Iraq. Some suggested Hagel had not been forthcoming and repeated demands for more information on his finances.
"There are very few people who have been this wrong about so many different things," said Senator Lindsey Graham, who has been one of the most vocal opponents of Hagel's nomination.
Levin praised the nominee's record and urged his speedy confirmation as the country faces steep budget problems and international threats such as a nuclear test by North Korea just hours before the hearing.
"We need a secretary of defense. We have the use of a nuclear weapon in North Korea," Levin said.
Despite their scornful attacks on Hagel, Republicans on the committee did not follow through on a threat to walk out.
Other Republicans have threatened to use a procedural tactic known as a filibuster to try to keep the full Senate from considering Hagel's nomination this week. The Senate begins a week-long recess on Friday.
But it was not immediately clear that they would follow through on that threat, which would be almost unprecedented in the nearly 100 years since the Senate started its modern filibuster rules.
A Republican Senate leadership aide said no Republican had publicly declared an intention to try to block the vote.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Sandra Maler, Christopher Wilson and Cynthia Osterman)