Hagel has enough support for defence secretary

WASHINGTON (AP) - Chuck Hagel has secured the necessary votes for the Senate to confirm him to be the next US defence secretary barring any new, damaging information, and a vote ending the bitter fight over President Barack Obama's Cabinet choice is expected next week.

Hagel cleared the threshold when 30-year veteran Republican Senator Richard Shelby said he would vote for the fellow Republican and former senator after joining other party members last week in an unprecedented delaying maneuver of the Pentagon nominee.

Republicans have been critical of the Hagel, charging he is not sufficiently pro-Israel and tough on Iran.

"He's probably as good as we're going to get," Shelby told an Alabama newspaper.

In another 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. Chuck Hagel will be an exceptional leader at an important time."

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.

Although a Republican, Hagel has faced strong Republican opposition, with many of his former colleagues voting last week to stall the nomination.

They have questioned his support for Israel, his 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, a Republican.

Hagel once said "the Jewish lobby (in the United States) intimidates a lot of people here" and does some "dumb things" that aren't "smart for Israel."

He also said that "I'm not an Israeli senator. I'm a United States senator."

Those statements and others caused jitters in Israel, where in some circles he is seen as unsympathetic.

Regarding Iran, in the past Hagel has questioned the efficacy of unilateral sanction, arguing that penalties in conjunction with international partners made more sense.

However, in his responses during confirmation hearings, Hagel adopted a hard line on Iran, echoing Obama's position that the US would consider all options, including military action, to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Shelby's support was a clear sign of weakening Republican opposition, and it prompted two letters within hours from Hagel's fiercest Republican foes.

One letter went to the president calling on him to withdraw the nomination, the other to Republican senators pleading with them to stand together against Hagel.

Fifteen Republicans 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 Texas Senator John Cornyn, the party's No. 2, who is up for re-election 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.