CAPITOL HILL — The U.S. Senate has confirmed President Barack Obama’s pick for defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, after a bruising nomination battle that saw widespread Republican opposition to the former Republican senator by a vote of 58 to 41. Hagel will lead the Pentagon as America’s war in Afghanistan is winding down, and at a time of U.S. fiscal austerity.
The Senate confirmed Hagel Tuesday, just days before the start of automatic spending cuts, half of which will affect national security. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid:
“In three days, across-the-board cuts to defense spending are scheduled to take effect," said Reid. "The Pentagon needs a seasoned leader to implement these cuts.”
Two weeks ago, Republicans blocked a final vote on Hagel, saying they needed more time to consider the nomination. On Tuesday, more than a dozen Republicans joined with Democrats to end debate. But bipartisanship virtually disappeared four hours later, when all but four Republicans voted against confirmation in the Democrat-controlled chamber.
Senator John Cornyn was among those who cast a ‘no’ vote, citing Hagel’s statements at his confirmation hearing earlier this month.
“Senator Hagel described the murderous, terrorist-sponsoring Iranian theocracy as an ‘elected legitimate government’. That comment is a slap in the face to all the courageous Iranian democracy activists who have risked their lives, and in many cases given their lives, to oppose the dictatorship and promote freedom. There is no way to sugarcoat it: Senator Hagel’s performance before the Senate Armed Services Committee was remarkably inept. And we should not be installing a defense secretary who is obviously not qualified for the job," said Cornyn.
Cornyn and other Republicans also criticized Hagel’s comments on Iran’s nuclear program and Israel’s perceived clout in U.S. politics.
Democrats said many of Hagel’s comments have been mischaracterized or taken out of context. Senator Carl Levin noted Hagel’s unique military background.
“Senator Hagel would be the first former enlisted man and the first veteran of the Vietnam War to serve as secretary of defense," said Levin. "This background gives Senator Hagel an invaluable perspective.”
Democratic Senator Tom Carper cautioned his Republican colleagues against setting a damaging precedent of partisan obstruction to presidential Cabinet picks.
“Some day we will have a Republican president again," said Carper. "Someday we will have a Republican majority here. Just be careful - I say this with respect - be careful of the bed that we make. Because someday our friends on the other side [Republicans] will get to lie in it.”
Republicans countered that President Obama should have put forth a less-divisive nominee who would have attracted bipartisan support.
Senator Roger Wicker:
“If a Republican president in the future brings a nomination for defense secretary to this Senate who cannot get as many as 60 votes, I will ask that Republican president to withdraw that nomination, and wish this president [Obama] would do the same," said Wicker.
Has the contentious confirmation process left Chuck Hagel a weakened defense secretary? Analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute says no, and predicts Hagel’s relationship with Republican lawmakers will improve.
“A lot of those wounds will, if not be healed, at least be ameliorated. Once he [Hagel] is there, they [Republicans] will not want to undermine his ability to manage the Defense Department, unless he does something that they think is shockingly bad," said Ornstein.
Hagel succeeds Leon Panetta, who served as defense secretary beginning in 2011.