Chuck Hagel and Barack Obama in January. Photo: AFP
WASHINGTON: The Senate confirmed Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, after weeks of partisan acrimony over President Barack Obama's choice to head the Pentagon in a time of budget-cutting and evolving threats from terrorism to cyber warfare.
The nomination was approved on a 58-41 vote hours after the Senate acted to limit debate, cutting off the first filibuster against a nominee for defense secretary. The former Republican senator from Nebraska, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, will replace retiring Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Mr Hagel, 66, will become the Pentagon's leader as across-the- board spending cuts called sequestration are set to take $US46 billion from military budgets over seven months and $500 billion over a decade, starting March 1, unless Obama and Congress agree on an alternative.
Republicans, who have criticised Mr Hagel for his past positions -- from his opposition to the troop surge during the Iraq war to his comments on the influence of what he once called the "Jewish lobby" -- were readying for new fights with Mr Hagel as the steward of the Pentagon's diminishing funds.
"There are those of us who seek to cut waste, fraud, and abuse from the Department of Defence," Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, said this month during floor debate. "Senator Hagel seeks something else entirely -- to cut military capabilities that serve as tools to ensure our continued engagement through the world in support of America's interests and those of our allies."
Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democratic leader, said Mr Hagel's abilities are widely recognised. Mr Hagel has been endorsed by 13 former secretaries of defense, state, and national security advisers of both parties, he pointed out.
"Men who have had that responsibility trust Chuck Hagel, and so do I," Senator Durbin said today.
Republicans said Mr Hagel has been weakened by the confirmation process. No defence secretary has been confirmed with more than 11 votes in opposition, said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican leader.
"He will take office with the weakest support of any defense secretary in modern history, which will make him less effective in his job," Senator Cornyn said.
In announcing Hagel as his nominee on January 7, Mr Obama called the Vietnam veteran "the leader our troops deserve" and said he will be able to manage the "tough fiscal choices" necessary amid shrinking budgets.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said Mr Hagel's confirmation would mark the first time the Defence Department would be led by a Vietnam veteran who remained an enlisted man throughout his military career. Mr Hagel's background provides "invaluable experience" at a time of intense budget pressures and continuing combat operations overseas, Senator Levin said.
"The president needs to have a secretary of defence in whom he has trust, who will give him unvarnished advice, a person of integrity, and one who has a personal understanding of the consequences of decisions relative to the use of military force," Senator Levin said in floor debate. "Hagel certainly has those critically important qualifications and he is well qualified to lead the Department of Defense."
The action today came almost two weeks after Republicans blocked Hagel's confirmation on February 14, saying they needed time to get more information. That initial motion to end debate failed, 58-40, with 60 votes needed. Tuesday, the so-called cloture motion was approved, 71-27.
A number of Republicans who opposed Hagel said they were hesitant to filibuster against a president's choice for defense secretary because of the precedent it would set.
Opposition to Hagel, which included advertisements on cable television, began even before Obama announced his selection. The anti-Hagel campaign was led by Republicans outside of Congress such as William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard magazine.
Kristol and McCain are among Republicans who favor a more aggressive military stance abroad and who broke with Mr Hagel when he opposed Bush's decision to send a surge of 30,000 troops to bolster the combat effort in Iraq in 2007.
Opposition to the surge made Mr Hagel an ally of then-Senator Obama, who won election to the chamber in 2004 as an opponent of the war. The two men developed a camaraderie traveling together to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008.
Mr McCain, who had long been a friend of the fellow Vietnam veteran, repeatedly pressed Mr Hagel at his confirmation hearing last month to say that he had been wrong about the surge. Mr Hagel refused Senator McCain's demands for a yes-or-no answer.
In a sign of continuing resistance among Republican lawmakers, 15 of the party's senators called on Obama last week to withdraw Hagel's nomination. Among those signing the letter were Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, and five other members of the panel.