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.
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.
Obama called Hagel “the defense secretary our nation needs and the leader our troops deserve.”
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 myriad unresolved tensions and emerging threats: Syria’s anti-government uprising, Iran’s effort to develop nuclear weapons, China’s cyberwar against the U.S., and looming cuts in the defense budget.
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.