WASHINGTON: Fifteen US Senate Republicans have urged President Barack Obama to withdraw his controversial choice of defence secretary, even as others in the party concede the nominee will be confirmed next week.
Obama's nominee, Republican former senator Chuck Hagel, has faced intense opposition by current lawmakers and was grilled by the likes of Senator John McCain during a testy hearing in which critics questioned Hagel's positions on Iran, nuclear weapons, Israel and the US troop surge in Iraq.
"Senator Hagel's performance at his confirmation hearing was deeply concerning, leading to serious doubts about his basic competence to meet the substantial demands of the office," the senators, led by number two Republican John Cornyn, said in a letter to Obama.
"While Senator Hagel's erratic record and myriad conversions on key national security issues are troubling enough, his statements regarding Iran were disconcerting."
Senator Hagel stumbled at times during his lengthy testimony late last month, mistakenly saying he favoured "containment" of Iran instead of Obama's policy of preventing Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons. He corrected himself later after being handed a note.
"If Senator Hagel becomes secretary of defence, the military option (against Iran) will have zero credibility," the senators wrote, adding that Senator Hagel lacked the "broad-based bipartisan support" enjoyed by outgoing chief Leon Panetta, which they said was critical to the success of the next Pentagon head.
Republicans managed to force a delay on Senator Hagel's confirmation vote last week, saying some colleagues need more time to study his finances and speech transcripts.
White House spokesman Jay Carney insisted Senator Hagel would "absolutely not" withdraw his name.
Delaying the confirmation, Carney said, would hobble the Defence Department's readiness during a period of rising Middle East tensions, and amid the challenges of winding down the war in Afghanistan and the continuing nuclear threat from North Korea.
"We need our new secretary of defence on the job to be part of the significant decisions that have to be made as we bring that war (in Afghanistan) to a responsible end," he said.
A vote is expected on Tuesday in the Democratic-held Senate, and some Republicans foresee Senator Hagel's confirmation.
Senator McCain said on Sunday that he was "confident" Senator Hagel would have the necessary votes, although he does not support him.
Senator Hagel got a boost on Thursday when a spokesman for Senator Richard Shelby said that "barring any unforeseen surprises" the Alabama Republican would support Senator Hagel's nomination.