WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Chuck Hagel for defense secretary, handing a victory to President Barack Obama after a two-month showdown.
Senators voted 58-41 to confirm Hagel. Only four Republicans joined a unified Democratic caucus to support Hagel’s nomination: Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Richard Shelby of Alabama.
Hagel will be sworn in at the Pentagon on Wednesday. He replaces outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who has retired to his walnut farm in Carmel Valley, Calif.
Hagel is a Vietnam War veteran and former Republican senator from Nebraska who occasionally broke ranks with his party. He is the first enlisted man to ascend to the top defense post and is the second Republican secretary of defense to serve under Obama.
“With the bipartisan confirmation of Chuck Hagel … we will have the defense secretary our nation needs and the leader our troops deserve,” Obama said in a statement after the vote. “I will be counting on Chuck’s judgment and counsel as we end the war in Afghanistan, bring our troops home, stay ready to meet the threats of our time and keep our military the finest fighting force in the world.”
Earlier Tuesday, the Senate voted 71-27 to end a Republican filibuster, the first in U.S. history against a defense secretary nominee. Majority Leader Harry Reid tried two weeks ago to end debate but fell one vote short. At least 60 votes are required to end debate in the Senate, but nominees only need a simple majority of 51 votes for confirmation.
“What has the filibuster gained my Republican colleagues?” Reid said before the vote. “Twelve days later, nothing, nothing has changed. Twelve days later, Senator Hagel’s exemplary record of service to his country remains untarnished.”
Hagel limped through a bruising confirmation process.
Before Obama officially tapped Hagel for the post, liberal groups criticized anti-gay comments he made in 1998 about James Hormel, the first openly gay U.S. ambassador who served in Luxembourg during the Clinton administration.
Conservatives picked up the reigns and hammered Hagel on his stance toward Israel. Hagel once used the controversial phrase “Jewish lobby” to refer to pro-Israel advocacy groups. He voted against some Iran sanctions during his Senate career, prompting accusations that he is soft on the issue and is unwilling to prevent a nuclear regime.
In an unprecedented move against a cabinet nominee, super PACs from both sides of the political spectrum launched an anti-Hagel campaign of mailings and television ads.
Republicans grilled Hagel at his confirmation hearing late last month. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., thrashed the nominee over his opposition to the 2007 troop surge in Iraq — a policy McCain vehemently supported that ultimately reduced violence. Hagel struggled with a few questions and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Tuesday his performance was “remarkably inept.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee advanced Hagel’s confirmation Feb. 12 after a tense 14-11 vote that broke along party lines. In a last-ditch effort, a group of 15 Republican senators later sent Obama a asking him to withdraw Hagel’s nomination.
“It would be unprecedented for a secretary of defense to take office without the broad base of bipartisan support and confidence needed to serve effectively in this critical position,” the letter read.
But Hagel’s confirmation was effectively guaranteed because Democrats united in supporting him. However, Hagel will take the helm at the Pentagon as a wounded leader.
An increasing number of Americans view Hagel negatively, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. Hagel has low name recognition but 28 percent of respondents still view him unfavorably, compared to 22 percent who see him in a positive light. Hagel had more support than opposition in a Pew poll conducted earlier this year.
And Hagel faces a full slate of challenges once he starts the new job, and some Republicans have publicly questioned wither he can effectively lead the Pentagon.
The top issue is sequestration, or the massive spending cuts that would eliminate billions of dollars from the Department of Defense budget. The cuts start kicking in Friday if Congress doesn’t take action and would be implemented gradually over the next decade.
“We’ve all been through the rough and tumble of politics,” Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said after the vote. “These are big boys and ladies here … I think he’ll be focusing right away on some major challenges that he faces in the world and also in the budget.”