By RICHARD LARDNER, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans have questioned Chuck Hagel's truthfulness and they've challenged his patriotism.
Now they're threatening to stonewall his nomination to be President Barack Obama's defense secretary unless the White House gives them more information about what Obama was doing on the night of the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has set the stage for a full Senate vote on Hagel, a former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska and twice-wounded Vietnam combat veteran. Reid filed a motion Wednesday to limit debate and force a vote, which is expected to be held Friday. While Democrats hold a 55-45 edge in the Senate and have the numbers to confirm Hagel on a majority vote, they need the support of five Republicans to clear the way for an up-or-down vote on him.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he'll vote against ending debate on Hagel's nomination and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., may join him if the White House doesn't tell them whether Obama spoke to any Libyan government official during the assault and requested assistance for the American personnel at the mission. U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died in the raid last September at the compound in Benghazi.
"There seems to not be much interest to hold this president accountable for a national security breakdown that led to the first ambassador being killed in the line of duty in over 30 years," Graham said. "No, the debate on Chuck Hagel is not over. It has not been serious. We don't have the information we need. And I'm going to fight the idea of jamming somebody through until we get answers about what the president did personally when it came to the Benghazi debacle."
McCain declined to say Wednesday whether he would try to delay Hagel's confirmation if Obama did not provide an answer. "My position right now is I want an answer to the question," he said.
A president's pick for a Cabinet post usually requires only a majority vote, leading Reid to accuse Senate Republicans of orchestrating a filibuster against a nominee for defense secretary for the first time in the country's history.
But the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee challenged Reid's claim, saying it's not unusual to hold a Cabinet nominee to a 60-vote threshold. "It's not a filibuster," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. "This has happened (before), and it's happening again right now."
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he's confident that the White House will supply the information Graham and McCain want and that Hagel will be confirmed.
A bitterly divided Armed Services Committee on Tuesday voted to approve Hagel by a 14-11 vote, with all the panel's Democrats backing him. The committee's Republicans were unified in their opposition to their onetime colleague, who would succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta if he's confirmed.
Hagel has faced intense opposition from Republicans, who have challenged his past statements and votes on Israel, Iran, Iraq and nuclear weapons.
But the questions and comments before Tuesday's vote took a more personal and confrontational turn. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, demanded that Hagel provide information on compensation for speeches over a five-year period – three years more than required – and suggested that without the information, the committee wouldn't know whether Hagel got money from "extreme and radical groups."
Inhofe said reports about Iranian leaders praising Hagel's nomination back up Cruz's claim. "I'd say he's endorsed by them. You can't get any cozier than that," Inhofe said.
Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican senator from Maine once thought to be a possible backer of Hagel's nomination, said Wednesday she'll oppose his confirmation. Hagel's views on the most critical threats facing the United States are "unsettling," she said in a four-page statement.
Collins said Hagel was unwilling to ask the European Union to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization in 2006, and he has been hesitant to back the use of all nonmilitary options, such as unilateral sanctions, to pressure Iran into ceasing its nuclear program.
But Collins, who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she would not join in a filibuster to block a final vote.
In her statement, Collins said that Hagel's "courageous military service deserves our praise and gratitude" and that he cares deeply about the welfare of the troops. But she could not get past what she described as Hagel's troubling record on key national security issues. Confirming him as defense secretary would send the wrong message to the country's allies and adversaries about the resolve of the United States, Collins said.
"I am unable to support Senator Hagel to be the next secretary of defense because I do not believe his past positions, votes and statements match the challenges of our time, and his presentations at his (confirmation) hearing did nothing to ease my doubts," Collins said. "I regret having to reach that conclusion given our personal relationship and my admiration for Senator Hagel's military service. But I have concluded that he is not well-suited for the tremendous challenges our country faces during this dangerous era in our history."
Two Republicans – Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Mike Johanns of Nebraska – have announced their support for Hagel.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.
Sen. Susan Collins: http://www.collins.senate.gov/public/