By Jeremy Herb and Ramsey Cox - 02/26/13 05:41 PM EST
The Senate voted Tuesday to end debate and move to a final vote on former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as Defense secretary.
The 71-27 vote paves the way for a final up-or-down vote on Hagel later Tuesday, and comes after the first-ever filibuster of a Defense Department nominee earlier this month.
Eighteen Republicans voted with Democrats to break the filibuster and end debate, and at least a few of them are expected to support Hagel in a final vote. Sixty votes were needed to end debate.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) set up a 4:30 p.m. vote for final confirmation. There were no Republican objections.
The successful cloture vote signals the end of what’s been the most contentious nomination of a Defense secretary in more than two decades. Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, is expected to be approved on a near party-line vote, a rarity for a Defense secretary.
Republicans have hammered Hagel for his positions and statements on Iran, Israel and nuclear weapons, arguing their former Senate colleague is the wrong choice to run the Pentagon.
Hagel critics have fought an uphill fight to stop his nomination because no Democrats have abandoned President Obama’s Defense secretary pick.
Ahead of the vote, Reid blasted Republicans for filibustering Hagel two weeks ago, calling it a waste of time.
“What has the filibuster gained my Republican colleagues? Nothing — nothing has changed in 12 days,” Reid said on the floor Tuesday. “Politically motivated delays send a terrible signal to our enemies around the world.”
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who cleared Hagel in the committee over Republican requests to delay the vote, downplayed the significance of the GOP delay. He said the process was worked in a “fairly traditional Senate way,” pointing to the 18 Republicans who voted for cloture.
“I thought the rules kind of worked pretty well here,” Levin told reporters after the vote.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and other GOP senators said two weeks ago they were blocking Hagel because they wanted to give their colleagues more time to look at his record. They also said they would support ending debate once the Senate returned this week.
However, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, urged Republicans to vote against cloture once more to stop Hagel’s confirmation.
“This is the one vote that makes a difference,” Inhofe said on the floor Tuesday.
Republicans had previously blocked Hagel’s confirmation just two days after his nomination cleared the Senate Armed Services Committee in a tense hearing. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) had called for a delay in the vote because he wanted more information from Hagel about who had paid him for speeches. Cruz alleged the funding might have come from radical groups.
Graham and McCain had also threatened to block Hagel in order to get more information from the Obama administration on last year’s attack in Benghazi, Libya. They received a letter from the White House ahead of the vote, but still voted against cloture because of the other GOP calls for information.
Republicans and Hagel critics had hoped they could defeat his nomination when it was first announced last month, but those hopes faded after Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he would support Hagel despite his statements on Israel.
The timing of a final up-or-down vote on Hagel will depend on whether all senators are willing to waive the 30 hours of post-cloture time before a final vote can be held.
Updated at 1:36 p.m.