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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate panel approved Chuck Hagel as President Barack Obama's new secretary of defense on Tuesday, setting the stage for a vote on his confirmation by the full Senate, possibly this week.
After acrimonious discussion of the former Nebraska Republican senator, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 14-11 along party lines to advance Hagel's confirmation to succeed Leon Panetta as the civilian leader at the Pentagon.
Senator David Vitter, a Republican of Louisiana, did not cast a vote. Vitter had said he felt the Hagel vote was being rushed through the Senate.
Senator Carl Levin, the committee's Democratic chairman, told reporters that he hoped for a vote by the full Senate on Hagel's nomination by the end of this week. However, he said it could be pushed past the weekend if Republicans use procedural hurdles to delay it.
Harry Reid, the Senate Majority leader, said he hoped debate on Hagel's nomination would start on Wednesday.
The nomination of Hagel, 66, has met stiff opposition from some of his fellow Republicans, who raised questions about whether he was sufficiently supportive of Israel and tough on Iran.
Levin insisted the confirmation battle would not weaken Hagel, diminish his ability to work with the committee going forward nor harm the ability of Democrats and Republicans on the panel to cooperate.
"Sometimes you come out stronger from these kinds of fights," he told reporters after the hearing.
Hagel's testimony before the armed services panel during his January 31 confirmation hearing has also been criticized. Even some Democrats have said he appeared unprepared and at times hesitant during aggressive questioning by Republican committee members.
During the committee meeting, Democrats largely praised Hagel's record and made the case for his confirmation. Several stressed the right of the president to choose members of his cabinet, despite objections from the other party.
"As much as some people in this room don't like it, he was elected president of the United States by the American people and he has selected an honorable veteran, a Republican, who has served this country in various capacities," Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill said.
Republicans criticized Hagel's past statements such as his opposition to President George W. Bush's "surge" sending thousands more troops to Iraq and sought to delay the vote, repeating demands for more information on Hagel's finances and speeches.
"There are very few people who have been this wrong about so many different things," said Senator Lindsey Graham, who has been one of the most vocal opponents of Hagel's nomination.
Levin, noting that Hagel is a decorated Vietnam war veteran, praised the nominee's record and urged his speedy confirmation as the country faces steep budget problems and international threats such as a nuclear test by North Korea just hours before the hearing.
"Senator Hagel's credentials are underscored by his service in war and in peace," Levin said before the vote.
At one point there was a heated exchange between Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, two of the Republicans on the panel, and several Democrats. This occurred after Cruz implied that Hagel had lied to the committee and Inhofe said Hagel was "cozy" with Iran because, he said, Tehran had endorsed his nomination as defense secretary.
Levin said Hagel had complied with the committee's rules for financial disclosure from nominees.
Despite the heated exchanges, Republican members of the committee did not follow through on a threat to walk out on the vote.
Other Republicans have threatened to use a procedural hurdle known as a filibuster, which would make it difficult for the full Senate to vote on Hagel's nomination this week, as the Democrats hope. The Senate begins a week-long recess on Friday.
But it was not immediately clear that they would follow through on that threat. A Republican Senate leadership aide said no Republican has publicly declared an intention to try to block the vote. (Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Sandra Maler, Christopher Wilson and Cynthia Osterman)