By Jeremy Herb and Ramsey Cox - 02/26/13 10:09 PM EST
The Senate on Tuesday voted to confirm former Sen. Chuck Hagel as Pentagon chief in a 58-41 vote, ending one of the most contentious confirmation fights for a Defense secretary in U.S. history.
Only four Republicans backed Hagel, a former GOP senator from Nebraska whose controversial statements on Israel, Iran and other issues made him a lighting rod on the right and led to the first-ever filibuster of a nominee to lead the Pentagon.
GOP Sens. Thad Cochran (Miss.), Richard Shelby (Ala.), Mike Johanns (Neb.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) voted to confirm Hagel.
The Senate earlier on Tuesday voted 71-27 to end debate on Hagel. Eighteen Republicans joined Democrats in cutting off debate.
Hagel’s nomination faced the fiercest opposition for a Defense secretary in more than two decades, when former Sen. John Tower’s (R-Texas) confirmation was defeated by Senate Democrats.
Hagel will be sworn in almost immediately and is expected to serve his first day in office on Wednesday. He will immediately face the challenge of handling automatic spending cuts set to hit the Pentagon on March 1 under the sequester. The cuts would trim the Defense Department’s budget by $46 billion through Sept. 30.
Hagel will also have to mend relationships with skeptical Republicans who opposed his nomination and now are skeptical he will be successful leading the Pentagon.
“I think he will be entering as weak, based on his performance [in the confirmation hearing],” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters Tuesday. “Sen. Hagel has got to prove to people he’s up to the job.”
Democrats, however, said that the fight over Hagel will not leave any scars once he’s in office.
“I just don’t see any negative effect on his capability to run the Defense Department,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.).
Levin said that the final vote wasn't "as great a majority as we would have liked," but he said the attacks from his Republican colleagues on the nominee were not personal, and would not prevent them from working with Hagel.
“They disagreed with a number of things he said, but they also said they respected him as a person and a war hero. I don’t think there was — with maybe one or two exceptions — any kind of a personal attack on him,” Levin said.
Hagel’s nomination was criticized even before his official nomination.
Outside groups hammered his past statements on everything from Israel and Iran to gay rights. Before he was nominated, Hagel apologized for calling a gay diplomatic nominee "aggressively gay" in 1998, and he subsequently apologized for saying the "Jewish lobby" intimidated lawmakers.
Hagel also was criticized for his shaky performance at his confirmation hearing, where he misspoke about the U.S. policy of “containment” toward Iran and did not mollify critics like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who attacked him for his opposition to the Iraq surge.
While a group of Republicans decided to let Hagel’s nomination proceed Tuesday, Senate Armed Services ranking member Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) tried to stop Hagel to the end, urging colleagues to oppose cloture.
“Iran supports Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be Secretary of Defense ... they could be considered the greatest foe of the United States,” Inhofe said, making a reference to a statement from the Iranian Foreign Ministry that said Hagel could improve relations as a Cabinet member.
Inhofe defended the calls from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) for additional information on compensation from Hagel’s paid speeches. Cruz had suggested at the Armed Services Committee vote that Hagel might have received money from groups funded by Saudi Arabia or North Korea.
Hagel’s biggest challenges when he comes into office will be dealing with sequestration, which the Joint Chiefs of Staff have warned will hollow out the force. Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has lobbied for more than a year about the danger of the cuts.
Hagel will also oversee the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the rise of al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Africa and the threat of a nuclear Iran.
“He’s going to be challenged,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). “I think he’s going to have to prove to the American people and the Congress that he can manage [the Defense Department], that he can efficiently handle the spending squeeze that he’s going to face.”
Levin suggested the tensions would dissipate on both sides.
“I think that everybody here who has worked with Sen. Hagel realizes that he’s not the kind of person who carries grudges,” he said.