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WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said Friday he will press ahead with a vote on Chuck Hagel's nomination to be defense secretary, rejecting Republicans demands for more financial information from President Barack Obama's choice as setting an unprecedented new standard.
In a letter, Sen. Carl Levin provided a point-by-point rebuttal to the GOP requests for data on Hagel's paid speeches and foreign donors to private entities he's been affiliated with, arguing that the requirements exceed the committee's rules and what has been asked of previous defense secretaries, Republican and Democrat.
"The committee cannot have two different sets of financial disclosure standards for nominees, one for Sen. Hagel and one for other nominees," the Michigan Democrat wrote.
His letter was in response to a Feb. 6 letter from 26 Senate Republicans to Hagel insisting that they needed more information before they could vote on his nomination. Among those signing the GOP letter were Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Armed Services panel.
Republicans have asked Hagel to disclose all compensation of more than $5,000 from the past five years — three years more than the law or committee rules require. Levin said the panel's two-year requirement on disclosure is consistent with the Ethics in Government Act as well as past practices for all nominees for Senate-confirmed positions and candidates for federal elective office.
Levin said the committee's disclosure requirements for nominees have remained the same for 26 years, including his 16 as chairman or ranking member. In that nearly three-decade span, the committee has confirmed defense secretaries and other senior civilian nominees at the Pentagon with far more lucrative and extensive financial holdings than Hagel, including Republicans Frank Carlucci and Dick Cheney.
Hagel, 66, a former two-term Republican senator and decorated combat veteran in the Vietnam War, has faced fierce GOP opposition, with more than dozen Republicans announcing they will vote against Hagel and several others indicating they were likely to vote no. Hagel has faced a barrage of criticism from lawmakers and GOP-leaning outside groups who have complained that he is too tolerant of Iran, too critical of Israel and willing to slash the nation's nuclear arsenal.
Hagel's halting and uneven testimony at his confirmation hearing before the Armed Services panel undercut his nomination.
This week, Levin postponed an expected vote on the nomination as the GOP pressed for information.
Despite the setbacks, the president's pick to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to win confirmation, with the backing of all 55 Senate Democrats and at least two Republicans — Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Hagel's home state. More than a handful of Republicans, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have said they oppose a filibuster of the nomination.
Levin intends to schedule a vote as soon as possible on Hagel's nomination, and congressional aides said a vote could occur next week before the Senate breaks for a weeklong recess.
In his letter, Levin said the Republicans' demand for information about foreign sources of funding to private entities subjects Hagel to a different requirement than all other previous nominees for positions at the Pentagon.
Specifically, the Republican senators want Hagel to disclose whether any of the eight organizations and businesses he was affiliated with after leaving the Senate in 2009 received money from foreign sources. Their letter argued that the information was needed to know whether Hagel received directly or indirectly any "financial remuneration" from foreign governments, sovereign wealth funds, lobbyists and corporations.
But Hagel has already told the committee that neither he nor his wife has received during the last 10 years any compensation from, or been involved in any business transactions with, a foreign government or an entity controlled by a foreign government, Levin wrote.
Levin cited Hagel's role as chairman of the board of directors at the Atlantic Council, a nonprofit think tank, to demonstrate the unusual breadth of the GOP's demands. Among the Atlantic Council's corporate contributors are U.S. companies, such as Chevron, Citigroup and Boeing, and foreign entities, including Polish Telecom, the Istanbul Stock Exchange and All Nippon Airways.
"Over the 16 years that I have served as either chairman or ranking minority member of this committee, we have considered numerous nominations of individuals who were associated with similar thinks tanks, universities and other nonprofit entities," Levin wrote. "Even in the many cases where a nominee received compensation from such a nonprofit entity, we did not require the nominee to disclose the sources of funding provided to the nonprofit entity."
Last month, Hagel told Pentagon officials he would divest some of his financial holdings and resign from several corporate boards and public interest groups to avoid potential conflicts of interest if he wins Senate confirmation.
He said he would resign his corporate board post at Chevron Corp. and shed investments in the energy company, a major government contractor. He also would cut ties and investments with the McCarthy Group LLC, an Omaha-based private equity firm.
Hagel also pledged to cut ties with several academic and public interest groups, including Georgetown University and the Atlantic Council.
Well-funded outside groups are keeping up a steady drumbeat of criticism of Hagel. The Emergency Committee for Israel is running an ad on cable in the New York and Washington markets as well as the Sunday morning network news shows assailing Hagel on Iran. The American Future Fund is launching an ad on Sunday that includes sound bites from Hagel's testimony in which the nominee struggled with questions.
Obama announced his nomination of Hagel on Jan. 7. Panetta is stepping down after serving as CIA director and Pentagon chief in the Obama administration.
Associated Press writer Richard Lardner contributed to this report.