WASHINGTON — A senior Republican senator said he will vote to confirm Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, ensuring President Obama's nominee of the needed votes to make him the nation's next Pentagon chief.
Five-term Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama told the Decatur Daily that while he has concerns about Hagel, he plans to support his fellow Republican and the former two-term senator from Nebraska.
“He's probably as good as we're going to get,” Shelby said.
Jonathan Graffeo, a spokesman for Shelby, said today that barring any unforeseen surprises between now and an expected Senate vote on Tuesday, the senator will back Hagel.
Obama's choice to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has faced strong Republican opposition, and last week the GOP succeeded in an unprecedented filibuster of a nominee for Pentagon chief. Shelby joined most of his Republicans colleagues in voting against moving ahead on the Hagel nomination.
With another vote slated for next week, Shelby now stands with two other Republicans who have indicated their support for Hagel — Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Mike Johanns of Nebraska. The GOP support — combined with 55 Democratic votes and two other Republicans opposed to delaying tactics — would give the nomination the requisite 60 votes out of 100 necessary to move ahead.
Republicans have criticized Hagel for his past statements and votes, contending that he hasn't been sufficiently supportive of Israel and has been too tolerant of Iran. They also have challenged his support for reducing the nation's nuclear arsenal and his opposition to the Iraq war after his initial vote for the conflict.
His nomination also has become entangled in GOP demands for more information from the Obama administration about the deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, last September that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Shortly after the news of Shelby's support, 15 Republicans senators opposed to Hagel's nomination released a letter in which they called on Obama to withdraw the nomination, arguing that Hagel lacks broad bipartisan support and “the occupant of this critical office should be someone whose candidacy is neither controversial nor divisive.”
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, took the lead on the letter.