WASHINGTON – The Senate voted Tuesday to confirm Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran and former Republican senator from Nebraska, as the 24th secretary of Defense after a brutal confirmation process that saw members of his own party question his capacity to lead the Pentagon.
Just hours after a vote to end the first-ever filibuster of a defense nominee, Hagel was approved 58 to 41, by far the narrowest margin for a successful appointment going back to the Carter administration. Hagel could get to work at the Pentagon as early as Wednesday.
President Obama announced his choice of Hagel to lead the Pentagon on Jan. 7, calling him “the leader that our troops deserve.” A sergeant in Vietnam and two-time Purple Heart recipient, Hagel becomes the first veteran of that war and the first former enlisted man to become Defense secretary.
Hagel’s 2008 trip to Iraq and Afghanistan with Obama, then the Democratic presidential nominee, in part drove Republican opposition to installing one of their own former colleagues in the Pentagon. In the weeks that followed, critics also pored over his past speeches and other public statements to question his views on Israel, Iran and other international hot spots.
Democrats also had concerns, including Hagel’s objection to the appointment of an openly gay man as ambassador to Luxembourg during the Clinton administration. The former senator apologized for his comments even before Obama officially nominated him.
Opposition to Hagel’s appointment grew after a dismal performance at his confirmation hearing. Two days after the Senate Armed Services Committee moved his nomination on a party-line vote, Senate Republicans mounted a filibuster to delay a final confirmation vote, saying they needed additional time to review his record and get answers to questions.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also used Hagel’s nomination as leverage to press the Obama administration to answer his questions about the terrorist raid on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Libya that led to four American fatalities, including the ambassador.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a freshman and outspoken conservative, went so far as to suggest that Hagel may have received income from hostile states such as North Korea.
No new bombshells emerged during a 10-day Presidents Day recess, however, and 14 Republicans switched their votes to end the filibuster. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the “over the top” opposition from some Republicans ultimately paved the way for confirmation.
Among Hagel’s most immediate challenges could be guiding the military through looming cuts to the defense budget – 13% in the current fiscal year, according to the Office of Management and Budget – because of the automatic budget cuts scheduled to take effect Friday.