WASHINGTON -- Fifteen GOP senators called on President Barack Obama to withdraw Chuck Hagel's nomination to lead the Pentagon, even as support from another Republican increased the likelihood he will be confirmed when Congress returns from recess next week.
In a letter to the White House, senators warned it would be unprecedented for such a controversial choice to be installed at the Defense Department.
"Over the last half-century, no Secretary of Defense has been confirmed and taken office with more than three senators voting against him," the group, led by Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla., wrote. "In the history of this position, none has ever been confirmed with more than 11 opposing votes. The occupant of this critical office should be someone whose candidacy is neither controversial nor divisive."
The letter said Hagel's "deeply concerning" performance at his confirmation hearing raises doubts about his "basic competence to meet the substantial demands of the office," and also raised concerns about his statements on Iran.
"It would be unprecedented for a Secretary of Defense to take office without the broad base of bipartisan support and confidence needed to serve effectively in this critical position," the group wrote.
The letter was also signed by Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., who has been one of Hagel's chief critics but who pledged last week to support ending the GOP filibuster on his nomination after the recess barring a "bombshell" disclosure.
The White House swiftly rejected the request. Spokesman Jay Carney told reporters it was "unfortunate ... that some Senate Republicans put political posturing ahead of our nation's security."
Carney pointed to the fact that another Republican, Richard Shelby, R-Ala., has come forward indicating he is likely to back his former colleague.
The endorsement was hardly enthusiastic, however. Shelby told an Alabama newspaper that Hagel was "probably as good as we're going to get" to lead the Pentagon under Obama.
A Shelby spokesman elaborated that Hagel has the senator's vote "barring any unforeseen surprises." Shelby had voted against ending debate over the nomination on Feb. 14 "as a courtesy to his colleagues who needed more time to examine Hagel's record," Jonathan Graffeo, the spokesman, said. "Having provided sufficient time, and taking all factors into consideration, he intends to support the nomination."
Shelby joins two other Republicans -- Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns, who now holds Hagel's former seat, and Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, the chamber's second most-senior Republican -- as yes votes. A second vote to end the GOP filibuster is expected next Tuesday when Congress returns from its Presidents Day week recess.
It appears all but certain Hagel will have the votes next week to win confirmation. Fifty-nine senators had voted to end the filibuster last week, just one vote shy of the 60 needed to proceed. Some who dissented promised to switch their votes after the 10-day break, as Shelby's office says he will now do.
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