A divided US Senate panel has approved Chuck Hagel as President Barack Obama's new defence secretary, the first step towards a vote by the full Senate, possibly later this week.
The Senate armed services committee voted 14-11, along party lines, to approve Hagel's nomination after two hours of often intense debate.
Senator David Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana, did not cast a vote, saying the process was too rushed.
Democratic Senator Carl Levin, the committee chairman, told reporters that he hoped for a vote by the full Senate on Hagel's nomination by the end of this week. But it could be delayed if Republicans use procedural tactics to stall.
Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, said he hoped debate on Hagel's nomination would start on Wednesday.
The nomination of Hagel, a former Republican senator, has met stiff opposition from some of his fellow Republicans, who raised questions about his views on Iran and Israel, among other issues.
But he is likely to be confirmed since no Democrat has come out against Hagel, and at least two Republicans 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.
'Cosy' with Iran
Tuesday's hearing lapsed at times into heated exchanges between Democrats and Republicans.
At one point, Republican James Inhofe accused Hagel of being "cosy" with Iran because, as he said, Tehran had backed his nomination.
"He's endorsed by them. You can't get any cosier than that," Inhofe said, prompting gasps within the hearing room and protests from Democrats.
Levin insisted the confirmation battle would not weaken Hagel nor diminish his ability to work with the committee going forward.
"Sometimes you come out stronger from these kinds of fights," he told reporters.
Hagel's testimony before the armed services panel during his January 31 confirmation hearing has also been criticised.
Even some Democrats have said he appeared unprepared and at times hesitant during aggressive questioning by Republican committee members.
North Korea threat
Republicans criticised Hagel's past statements such as his opposition to president George W Bush's "surge," which sent thousands of additional troops to Iraq.
"There are very few people who have been this wrong about so many different things," said senator Lindsey Graham, who has been one of the most vocal opponents of Hagel's nomination.
Levin praised the nominee's record and urged his speedy confirmation, saying the country faces steep budget problems and international threats such as a nuclear test by North Korea just hours before the hearing.
"We need a secretary of defence. We have the use of a nuclear weapon in North Korea," Levin said.
Despite their scornful attacks on Hagel, Republicans on the committee did not follow through on a threat to walk out.
Other Republicans have threatened to use a procedural tactic known as a filibuster to try to keep the full Senate from considering Hagel's nomination this week. The Senate begins a week-long recess on Friday.
But it was not immediately clear that they would follow through on that threat, which would be almost unprecedented in the nearly 100 years since the Senate started its modern filibuster rules.