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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senator Mike Johanns said on Saturday he would support fellow Nebraskan Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense, becoming the second Republican in the Senate to express public support for President Barack Obama's embattled nominee.
The Lincoln, Nebraska, JournalStar reported on its website that Johanns, a former Nebraska governor who holds Hagel's old Senate seat, issued a statement supporting Hagel. An aide to Johanns confirmed the report.
Johanns' backing increases the likelihood of Hagel's confirmation, despite bitter opposition by some Republicans and the former senator's cautious performance during a contentious confirmation hearing on Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Critics said Hagel performed poorly at times during his hearing, speaking hesitantly, seeming tired and often unprepared for some of the sharpest queries about his past controversial statements on Israel, Iran and U.S. nuclear strategy.
Hagel's nomination appears likely to clear its first hurdle - approval by the committee - with the support of all 14 Democrats on the 26-member panel and possibly some of its Republicans. The earliest that vote could come is Thursday.
Consideration by the full 100-member Senate would come later, likely within about a week of the committee vote.
Democrats control 55 seats in the Senate and none has come out publicly against Hagel.
Republican Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi had already said he would vote for Hagel's confirmation.
Hagel can be confirmed by a simple majority of 51 votes unless Republicans use a procedural hurdle that would require 60. Some Republicans have said they would not back such a measure even though they would not vote for Hagel.
Reporting By Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Peter Cooney