Senator signals support for Hagel; may secure vote

A Republican senator said he will vote to confirm Chuck Hagel as U.S. defense secretary, ensuring President Barack Obama's nominee of the needed votes to make him the next Pentagon chief after sharp opposition from members of Hagel's own party.
Sen. Richard Shelby told a newspaper that while he has concerns about his former colleague in the Senate, he plans to support his fellow Republican.
"He's probably as good as we're going to get," Shelby said.
Jonathan Graffeo, a spokesman for Shelby, said Thursday that barring any unforeseen surprises between now and an expected Senate vote on Tuesday, Shelby will back Hagel.
Obama's choice to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has faced strong Republican opposition, and last week the Republicans succeeded in an unprecedented delaying tactic for a nominee for Pentagon chief. Shelby joined most of his Republican colleagues in voting against moving ahead on the Hagel nomination.
With another vote scheduled for next week, Shelby now stands with two other Republicans who have indicated their support for Hagel, Thad Cochran and Mike Johanns. The Republican support, combined with 55 Democratic votes and two other Republicans opposed to delaying tactics, would give the nomination the requisite 60 votes out of 100 necessary to move ahead.
Hagel has a reputation as an independent and often differed with his own party. Republicans have criticized Hagel for his past statements and votes, contending that he hasn't been sufficiently supportive of Israel and has been too tolerant of Iran. They also have challenged his support for reducing the nation's nuclear arsenal and his opposition to the Iraq war after his initial vote for the conflict.
Hagel's nomination also has become entangled in Republican demands for more information from the Obama administration about the deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, last September that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Shortly after the news of Shelby's support, 15 Republicans senators opposed to Hagel's nomination released a letter in which they called on Obama to withdraw the nomination, arguing that Hagel lacks broad bipartisan support and "the occupant of this critical office should be someone whose candidacy is neither controversial nor divisive."
Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, took the lead on the letter.
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed.