The Senate cleared the way on Tuesday for the likely confirmation of Chuck Hagel as President Barack Obama's new secretary of defense.
The Senate voted 71-27 to end debate and move forward, almost two weeks after Republicans launched a filibuster to block Hagel's nomination. It was the first time such a procedural tactic had been used to delay consideration of a nominee for secretary of defense.
More than 15 Republicans joined with Democrats to open the way for a vote by the full Senate, now scheduled for 4:30 p.m. EST.
The vote virtually guarantees Hagel's approval: The entire Democratic caucus -- 55 out of 100 senators -- is committed to his confirmation, and only a simple majority is required to confirm the nomination.
A number of centrist Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, had expressed concerns about past Hagel comments, particularly his claim in 2006 that a "Jewish lobby" "intimidates" Congress, as well as his skepticism of sanctions and military moves that would keep Iran from advancing its suspected nuclear weapons program.
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said after the vote to end debate that a vote to confirm Hagel could come as soon as Tuesday afternoon.
Some have also raised questions about whether Hagel is sufficiently supportive of Israel or tough enough on Iran.
CALL TO PANETTA
Some of Hagel's most vehement opponents made a last-ditch appeal on the Senate floor for his nomination to be stopped before the vote on Tuesday. They argued that Hagel would be weakened in running the defense department because he will not be confirmed with strong bipartisan support.
James Inhofe, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he had even called Leon Panetta, the retiring secretary of defense, and asked him to remain at the Pentagon.
Panetta, 74, who has made no secret of his desire to retire to his home in California, declined.
Faulting a range of Hagel's past statements on Iran, Israel and other matters, Inhofe also pledged to work for the quick confirmation of another potential nominee if Hagel were withdrawn.
"We have a lot of them out there who would be confirmed in a matter of minutes," he added, naming Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, and Ashton Carter, the current deputy defense secretary, as more acceptable alternatives.
But Democrats blasted Republicans for the delay, when the country is at war and facing a budget crisis, and pushed for the vote to go ahead.
"Politically motivated delays send a terrible signal to our allies and to the world. And they send a terrible signal to tens of thousands of Americans serving in Afghanistan. For the sake of national security, it's time to set aside this partisanship," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.
Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing By David Storey, David Brunnstrom and Cynthia Osterman