OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Committee approves Hagel

The fighting didn’t end there, as Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said that Cruz had crossed the line by “impugning the patriotism of the nominee.”

That sparked ranking Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) to come to Cruz’s defense, suggesting that Hagel was in fact “cozy” with Iran.

“He’s endorsed by them — you can’t get any cozier than that,” Inhofe said.

A Democratic official emailed after that the Cruz comments were “an embarrassment to this committee,” but both Levin and Inhofe were downplaying the reverberations of what was a rare display of animosity on the Armed Services Committee.

“That bipartisan feel that we all have will survive, and you never know — it could actually be strengthened by this kind of a debate,” Levin told reporters after the vote.

“Sen. Levin and I have always gotten along very well. And this does not reflect a bitterness, this reflects a different philosophy, ” Inhofe said. “And I think I’m right and he’s wrong.”

The vote itself fell on strict party lines, with Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) — who like Cruz had asked Levin to delay the vote and was rejected — not voting.

Next steps for Hagel: Hagel’s confirmation now heads to the Senate floor, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he will not allow any holds to stop a vote.

Inhofe is calling for a 60-vote threshold on Hagle's confirmation, though he doesn’t want to filibuster it.

Other senators, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), have also raised the prospect of filibustering Hagel if the Obama administration does not answer their questions on Benghazi. Graham, along with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), sent President Obama a letter Tuesday asking him whether he spoke with any Libyan officials the night of the attack.

A number of Republican senators, such as McCain, have said they are opposed to a Hagel filibuster.

If there was a filibuster and cloture vote to end debate, it could push the Hagel vote to Friday or beyond.

Afghan withdrawal plans in State of the Union: After months planning and debate, recommendations and proposals, the White House and the Pentagon seem to be shifting their Afghan withdrawal strategy into high gear. 

The president’s plan to pull more than half of the remaining 66,000 American troops from the country by the end of the year is yet another sign of the Obama administration's ambitious effort to close the door on the more than decade-long war. 

The details of Obama's withdrawal plan, which will have nearly 34,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines back stateside this year, will be included in the president's State of the Union speech on Tuesday. 

Over 30,000 American troops, which were part of the White House's “surge” forces sent into Afghanistan back in 2009, were pulled from Afghanistan last year. 

The planned drawdown falls in line with the postwar recommendations of former U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. John Allen as well as others inside the Pentagon, according to a senior White House official. 

"The president made his decision based on the recommendations of the military and his national security team, as well as consultations with [Afghan president Hamid] Karzai and our international coalition partners," the official said.

Obama personally informed Karzai, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel of his plans to announce the troop withdrawal on Tuesday, the official added.

On Monday, the first tranche of U.S. weapons and equipment began filtering across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in yet another sign of the rapid American withdrawal from the Afghanistan. 

The scheduled troop withdrawal falls in line with the administration's decision earlier this year to hand over control of all security operations to Afghan National Security Forces ahead of schedule. That transition had been scheduled to take place sometime in early 2014 but will now take place this spring.

The decision was made after one-on-one talks between Obama and Karzai during the Afghan leader's trip to Washington in January.

Sequester drama: If one thing can be said for the ongoing debate between the White House, Pentagon and Congress over the Obama administration's sequestration plan, it has not been short on theatrics. 

From AIA's doomsday clocks to "meat ax" and "chainsaw" descriptions of the $500 billion across-the-board reduction to DOD coffers, trying to guess what colorful analogy opponents of the cuts will come up with to describe sequestration's effects has become somewhat of a parlor game inside the Beltway. 

But House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) is tired of the drama, and he wants the Pentagon to know it. 

In a letter sent to Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Tuesday, Hunter accused DOD for "adding drama to the sequestration debate" by publicizing its decisions to cut deployments and repairs to a number of the Navy's aircraft carriers. He also slammed the Pentagon for "critical training" missions and troop deployments to the Pacific — all in an attempt to draw attention to the real-world effects sequestration was having on day-to-day DOD operations. 

Hunter would rather Pentagon officials set their sights on under-performing or failing acquisition and development efforts, such as the Navy's biofuels program and the Army's struggling Distributed Common Ground System.  

These programs "illustrate expenditures that demand reconsideration under any budget scenario, and even more so now that cuts to readiness are occurring," Hunter wrote.

Carter, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and the service chiefs were on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to testify to the Senate Armed Services Committee on the dangers of sequestration.

On Wednesday, they will be back to appear before the House Armed Services panel, which includes Hunter.

In Case You Missed It:

— Panel to vote on Brennan on Thursday

— Pentagon leaders detail sequester dangers

— Obama to withdraw 34K Afghan troops

— Cheney backs Obama on drones

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