WASHINGTON After a combative two-hour debate that tested the bounds of Senate collegiality, the Armed Services Committee on Tuesday approved the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel as defense secretary on a party-line vote.
The 14-11 vote to send the nomination to the Senate floor with a favorable recommendation was just the latest step in a process that has deepened hostilities between congressional Republicans and the White House and exposed stark disagreements over wartime foreign policy.
After the vote, Republicans threatened to try to filibuster the nomination of Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran with whom some had worked as a member of their own party, while Democrats were promising to force a vote of the full Senate as early as tonight.
At times, the hearing slipped into an accusatory and bitter back-and-forth, with Republicans like Ted Cruz, a freshman senator from Texas, going as far as to suggest that Hagel had accepted money from nations that oppose U.S. interests.
Saying that he had serious doubts about the source of payments that Hagel had accepted for speaking engagements, Cruz said, "It is at a minimum relevant to know if that $200,000 that he deposited in his bank account came directly from Saudi Arabia, came directly from North Korea."
Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida and other Democrats countered by saying Republicans had unfairly questioned the integrity of Hagel, a two-time Purple Heart recipient, and had undermined the work of the normally bipartisan committee itself.
"Sen. Cruz has gone over the line," Nelson said. "He basically has impugned the patriotism of the nominee."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is opposing his former colleague, also bristled at the attacks on Hagel, saying that "no one on this committee should at any time impugn his character or his integrity."
Tension reached its height when Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the senior Republican on the committee, said that those who had suggested that Hagel was "cozy" with terrorist states had a basis for their claims because Iran has expressed support for his nomination.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., gasped in disgust. "Sen. Inhofe, be careful," she later warned him. "What if some horrible organization said tomorrow that you were the best guy that they knew?"
Then, looking directly at Cruz, she insisted that the president should be free to choose his own Cabinet.
"As much as some people in this room don't like it," she said, "he was elected president of the United States by the American people. And he has selected an honorable veteran, a Republican who has served our country in various capacities, including in this body."
Inhofe has vowed to use procedural tactics to slow Senate consideration of Hagel, a step that would require 60 votes for confirmation instead of the simple majority of 51.
The tactic may prove symbolic, however, because at least 60 senators, including some of those who voted against him Tuesday, have indicated that they will allow his nomination to come to the Senate floor.