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PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Republican opponents are sending signals that Chuck Hagel's bid to become defense secretary will probably come to an up-or-down vote soon in the Senate.
That's unless more information damaging to the nominee — and the Obama administration — surfaces in the coming week.
Critics maintain the decorated Vietnam combat veteran and former senator is unqualified to lead the U.S. military. A top White House official expressed “grave concern” over the delayed confirmation vote, adding that there was nothing to worry about in any disclosures that may yet come.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, a key Republican on defense matters, said Sunday that he doesn't believe Hagel, a one-time colleague and friend, is qualified. “But I don't believe that we should hold up his nomination any further, because I think it's (been) a reasonable amount of time to have questions answered.”
McCain and other Republicans angered President Barack Obama by delaying a vote on Hagel last week and preventing him from rounding out his second-term national security team, which includes Hagel and John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser who is awaiting confirmation to become CIA director. Former Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry assumed his post as secretary of state at the beginning of February.
Critics say Hagel, who snubbed McCain by staying neutral in the 2008 presidential race between McCain and Obama, isn't supportive enough of U.S. ally Israel and is unreasonably sympathetic to Iran, which has defied international pressure to halt its pursuit of material that could be used to make nuclear weapons.
Hagel's nomination also became ensnared in Republican lawmakers’ questioning of how the White House handled the September attack against a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, in which the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed. Hagel had no role in the administration's response to the Benghazi attack.
GOP senators also have challenged Hagel's past statements and votes on nuclear weapons, and his criticism of President George W. Bush's administration.
Republicans last week delayed a confirmation vote, but have indicated that one will be allowed when lawmakers return from a break on Feb. 25.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., another leader of the opposition to Hagel, referred to a letter he received from Hagel in response to questions about past statements on Israel. Graham said that, as a result, he'll take Hagel at his word, “unless something new comes along.”
Still, the weeklong delay buys Hagel's opponents more time to rally additional opposition.
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, making his first appearances on the Sunday talk shows in his new role, was asked if the delays in filling out Obama's Cabinet presented a threat to national security.
“It's a grave concern,” he said.
Hagel “has one thing in mind: How do we protect the country,” McDonough said, adding that there was nothing to worry about in any disclosures about Hagel that may still come.
Graham said senators were taking seriously their responsibility to scrutinize “one of the most unqualified, radical choices for secretary of defense in a very long time.”
Obama has criticized Republican senators for delaying the nomination, accusing them of playing politics with national security.
McDonough appeared on ABC's “This Week,” while McCain spoke on NBC's “Meet the Press” and Graham was interviewed by “Fox News Sunday.”