WASHINGTON -- After a contentious and possibly damaging nomination process that lasted almost two months, the Senate on Tuesday confirmed former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel as the new secretary of defense.
Hagel, 66, who served two terms in the chamber before retiring in 2008, won the post by a vote of 58-41, aided by the backing of four Republicans: Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Richard Shelby of Alabama. Johanns, Cochran and Shelby, who had all served with Hagel in the Senate, had announced their support earlier. But Paul had twice voted to continue a filibuster on the confirmation vote.
Hagel will replace Leon Panetta, who served as head of both the Defense Department and the CIA under President Barack Obama.
The vote brings to an end a nomination battle that had Republican critics claiming that Hagel – a decorated Vietnam War veteran, a policy adviser to Panetta and intelligence adviser to the president – was unqualified for the job, while Democratic supporters said they had twisted his words and smeared his reputation.
At the White House, the immediate reaction was relief.
“Senate confirmation of decorated war vet Chuck Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense is great news for our men & women in uniform,” tweeted White House spokesman Jay Carney.
Obama called Hagel "the defense secretary our nation needs and the leader our troops deserve. . . . 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."
For his part, Hagel was looking ahead. “I will work closely with Congress to ensure that we maintain the strongest military in the world and continue to protect this great nation,” he said in a statement after the vote.
Hagel will take over a job where he will have to grapple with a desk-full of unresolved tensions and emerging threats: Syria’s anti-government uprising, Iran’s effort to develop nuclear weapons, China’s cyber war against the U.S., and looming cuts in the defense budget.
After the confirmation, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who led the Republicans’ opposition to their former colleague, said that Hagel’s new job would get very difficult very quickly.
“As testimony from our most distinguished senior military leaders over the last several months has made clear,” Inhofe said, “these cuts will result in a hollow force that, for the first time in recent history, will be unable to respond to contingencies around the world.”
Defense policy expert Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution said that for Hagel to be effective he will need support in Congress, and soon. His priority, O’Hanlon said, will be “figuring out a package of defense cuts, beyond last year’s . . . that he and the rest of the administration and the Congress and the military can live with.”
That might prove difficult, given the strong feelings, and equally strong charges, evoked during his confirmation fight.
“At this critical time in our nation’s history, we need a secretary of defense who commands bipartisan support and is willing to take every action necessary to defend the United States if the need arises,” said Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., in a speech on the Senate floor. “Based on the years of public statements and actions taken during his career, I cannot say Chuck Hagel meets the criteria needed for this position that is so critical.”
But Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., suggested that the opposition to Hagel “wasn’t about resume, it was about ideology,” and she worried about the fallout.
“This is a scary time in the world, and their actions have diminished his effectiveness,” she said.
Opponents chastised Hagel for what they claimed were his views on Israel, while supporters said they took his statements out of context. They also complained about his views on terrorism, suggesting – even as they acknowledged that they had no evidence – that he had taken money from anti-U.S. governments. Critics also alleged he was affiliated with a group called "Friends of Hamas,” which turned out to be fictional.
Democrats said the attacks echoed the political witch hunts of the McCarthy era.
But Hagel’s performance before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his hearing did not win stellar reviews. He was halting and sounded uncertain at times during the questioning. But he was also often a loner amid the Republican Senate caucus when he served. Republicans have also never forgotten that he opposed the troop surge during the Iraq war.
A former infantry sergeant who was wounded twice in Vietnam, Hagel will become the first enlisted man to earn the top job at the Pentagon. During his confirmation hearing, he was described as a soldier willing to put himself in harm’s way.
“He feels a deep commitment to our men and women in uniform, and as the head of the Pentagon I know their interests will always be close to his heart,” Vice President Joe Biden, who served alongside Hagel in the Senate, said in a statement.