By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON, Feb 11 (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate panel plans to vote on Tuesday afternoon on the bitterly contested nomination of Chuck Hagel as President Barack Obama's new secretary of defense, the committee said on Monday.
Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which must approve Hagel's nomination as Pentagon chief before a vote by the full Senate, intends to ask the committee to vote in an open meeting at 2:30 p.m. EST (1930 GMT).
Hagel, 66, a Republican and former Nebraska senator, has been the target of harsh criticism from senators in his own party, who raised questions over whether he is sufficiently supportive of Israel and tough on Iran.
Hagel's testimony before the committee during his Jan. 31 confirmation hearing has also been criticized. Even some Democrats have said he appeared unprepared and at times hesitant during aggressive questioning by Republican panel members.
Levin intends to have the committee vote on Hagel's nomination after its members discuss it.
Hagel's backers are still convinced he will succeed the retiring Leon Panetta at the Defense Department and have called Republican delays and threats to prevent the vote on his nomination political posturing.
The Democrats have 14 votes on the armed services panel, to 12 for the Republicans, and Hagel needs only a simple majority to be cleared by the committee for a vote by the full senate, where the Democratic caucus outnumbers Republicans, 55-45.
No Democrat has come out against Hagel, and at least two Republicans - Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Mike Johanns, who holds Hagel's old Senate seat - have said they will vote for him.
A few other Republicans have said they would not support the use of any procedural mechanism that would force the Democrats to round up 60 votes to confirm Hagel.
Levin had hoped to have the committee vote on Hagel's confirmation last week, but delayed amid Republican demands for more information on issues including Hagel's business dealings and past speeches.
Levin has characterized some of the requests as an attempt to set a new standard for a cabinet nominee.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has been among the most vocal Hagel opponents, on Sunday threatened to block a vote on his confirmation until the Obama administration provides more information about the deadly September attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Graham had previously threatened to block the vote if Panetta did not appear before the committee to discuss Benghazi.
Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the committee in a four-hour hearing on Thursday, but Graham said he was still not satisfied.
Graham and some other Republican lawmakers have questioned Obama's response to the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi incident in which the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed.
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Jackie Frank and Philip Barbara) Keywords: OBAMA NOMINATIONS/HAGEL
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