The Senate on Tuesday voted to confirm former Sen. Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelInterpreter who helped rescue Biden in 2008 escapes Afghanistan Overnight Defense & National Security — Pentagon chiefs to Congress: Don't default Pentagon chiefs say debt default could risk national security MORE 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 CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranBottom line Bottom line Alabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future MORE (Miss.), Richard Shelby (Ala.), Mike JohannsMichael (Mike) Owen JohannsMeet the Democratic sleeper candidate gunning for Senate in Nebraska Farmers, tax incentives can ease the pain of a smaller farm bill Lobbying World MORE (Neb.) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulVaccine 'resisters' are a real problem Democrats fret as longshot candidates pull money, attention Journalist Dave Levinthal discusses 'uptick' in congressional stock trade violations MORE (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 GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamMayorkas tests positive for COVID-19 breakthrough case A pandemic of hyper-hypocrisy is infecting American politics Republicans' mantra should have been 'Stop the Spread' MORE (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 LevinCarl Milton LevinOvernight Defense: First group of Afghan evacuees arrives in Virginia | Biden signs Capitol security funding bill, reimbursing Guard | Pentagon raises health protection level weeks after lowering it Biden pays tribute to late Sen. Levin: 'Embodied the best of who we are' Former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm dead at 85 MORE (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 McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain: 'SNL' parodies made me feel like 'laughing stock of the country' Our military shouldn't be held hostage to 'water politics' Meghan McCain blames 'toxic' hostility for 'The View' exit MORE (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 InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Navy probe reveals disastrous ship fire response Sailors didn't know what to do in USS Bonhomme Richard fire, Navy probe finds Pentagon says almost half of Afghan evacuees at US bases are children MORE (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 CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised The Senate confirmation process is broken — Senate Democrats can fix it Australian politician on Cruz, vaccines: 'We don't need your lectures, thanks mate' MORE (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 SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits McCabe wins back full FBI pension after being fired under Trump Overnight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability MORE (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.