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Senate sets Jan. 31 hearing for Hagel as Pentagon chief

U.S. President Barack Obama's nominee for Secretary of Defense, former Senator Chuck Hagel (L), stands next to counterterrorism adviser John
U.S. President Barack Obama's nominee for Secretary of Defense, former Senator Chuck Hagel (L), stands next to counterterrorism adviser John

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama's nominee to become the next U.S. defense secretary, will face his Senate confirmation hearing on January 31, a Senate panel said on Wednesday.

The Senate Armed Services Committee announcement came a day after Hagel's nomination won critical support from two leading pro-Israel Senate Democrats, who said he had eased their concerns over his positions on Israel, Iran and other issues.

Obama nominated Hagel on January 7 to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The nomination provoked stiff opposition from some Republican legislators and conservative pro-Israel groups.

Hagel, a senator from Nebraska from 1997 to 2009 and a decorated Vietnam War veteran, split from his fellow Republicans by opposing the U.S.-led war against Iraq and was rumored to be a possible Obama pick for vice president in 2008.

Even some Democrats have expressed concern over issues including positions Hagel has taken in the past on Iran sanctions and concerns he is not a strong supporter of the Jewish state.

Hagel has been calling and meeting with senators to discuss their concerns before his hearing, but a handful of Republicans, including some on the Armed Services Committee, have said they oppose his appointment.

The Senate will vote on Hagel's nomination after his confirmation hearing before the committee. Democrats control 55 seats in the Senate. Hagel would need 60 votes - not just a simple majority - to clear potential Republican procedural hurdles and be confirmed.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Phil Stewart; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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