Republican Sen. Richard C. Shelby said Thursday he will support Chuck Hagel’s bid to become secretary of defense, nudging the contentious pick to the verge of confirmation even as 15 Republicans senators were urging President Obama to abandon his pick to run the Pentagon.
The shift is significant because Democrats came up one vote short last week of the three-fifths majority needed to force a floor debate on Mr. Hagel’s nomination and move to a confirmation vote, which the former senator from Nebraska is expected to win more easily.
Mr. Shelby becomes the third declared “yes” vote among Republicans — Sens. Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Thad Cochran of Mississippi are the others — and clears some brush from Mr. Hagel’s path to the top civilian post at the Pentagon.
Mr. Hagel, a Republican who served in the Senate from 1997 to 2009, has faced a barrage of criticism from former colleagues and freshmen senators alike for his prior statements on Israel and Iran and a lackluster performance during his confirmation hearing late last month. Tensions dating from Mr. Hagel’s tenure in the Senate — particularly his criticism of the war in Iraq — have also played a role in the delaying tactics Republicans have employed against Mr. Obama’s choice, in the face of loud objections from the White House.
Democrats last week fell one senator shy of the 60 votes necessary to end debate on Mr. Hagel’s nomination before the Senate left for a brief recess last week, with Republican senators saying they wanted more time to pore over information on Mr. Hagel or obtain more information from the White House about the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. (Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada switched his vote to “no” at the last minute in a parliamentary maneuver to control when the nomination could again be brought to the floor.)
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas led a group of GOP senators who called on Mr. Obama to withdraw Mr. Hagel’s name from contention. In a letter to the White House on Thursday, the lawmakers said Mr. Obama should find a nominee who could attract the same bipartisan support enjoyed by outgoing Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.
They also reiterated their concerns over Mr. Hagel’s approach to foreign policy and his showing at the confirmation hearing last month, which they labeled “deeply concerning.”
The letter is signed by some of Mr. Hagel’s most outspoken critics, including Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee; Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; and Sen. Ted Cruz from Texas, who was particularly tough on Mr. Hagel at last month’s confirmation hearing in the Armed Services Committee.
Mr. Hagel’s supporters say the timing of the Republican-engineered delay could not be worse, with sequester cuts looming over the Pentagon, a war still under way in Afghanistan, North Korea’s latest nuclear test, and tensions with Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons programs.
His critics, however, say he is the wrong person at the wrong time for the Pentagon post.
“Regarding U.S. policy on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons,” the group said in its letter, “Senator Hagel displayed a seeming ambivalence about whether containment or prevention is the best approach, which gives us great concern.”