WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted Tuesday to close debate on Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama's embattled nominee for secretary of defense, by a vote of 71 to 27.
Eighteen Republican senators also voted for cloture, a move that starts the clock for the nomination to come to a full vote before the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced shortly after the vote that the final vote on Hagel's nomination will be at 4:30 p.m. EST Tuesday.
The cloture vote marks an inevitable step toward Hagel's dragged-out confirmation. Senate Republicans had succeeded in maintaining a filibuster -- unprecedented for a Cabinet-level nominee -- on Feb. 14, right before the President's Day recess. Several Senate Republicans indicated, however, that they would change their votes after the recess.
When asked what changed between the filibuster and Tuesday, Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said, "It's the secretary of defense. There should not be a filibuster on the secretary of defense."
"You just cannot have uncertainty and limbo at the Defense Department at this time," he said, mentioning looming sequestration.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the time had come. "The questions had been answered and it's time for a vote," he said.
Yet, Republicans could insist on up to 30 hours of debate before a final vote happens, and just one objection could keep debate going for the full 30 hours.
Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, has been under fire for his outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq, criticism of the Israeli lobby's influence in Washington and past statements on Iran. Hagel did himself no favors by performing poorly in his confirmation hearing, often appearing uninterested or bumbling.
Some Senate Republicans have spoken harshly about Hagel. McCain, once close with Hagel, clashed with him over the troop surge in Iraq. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) went as far as to accuse Hagel of taking money from foreign groups.
All 55 Democrats are expected to vote for Hagel's confirmation. Three Senate Republicans have already said that they will vote for him, most recently Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.).
This is a developing story and has been updated.
CORRECTION: This post originally misidentified Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin. It has been corrected.