Chuck Hagel won confirmation Tuesday to become defense secretary over objections to his views on Middle East security and the administration’s handling of an attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya.
On a 58 to 41 vote, the Senate confirmed the former GOP senator as four Republicans joined 54 Democrats in approving Hagel, ending a nearly two-month battle that included an unprecedented filibuster against the nominee.
The four Republican senators voting in favor were Thad Cochran (Miss.), Mike Johanns (Neb.), Richard C. Shelby (Ala.) and Rand Paul (Ky.). All 41 no votes came from Republicans.
The vote marked a foreign policy victory for President Obama, who pushed the nomination of his old friend from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee despite warnings of a rough confirmation process. Hagel, a former Army infantryman who was awarded two Purple Hearts during the Vietnam War, will become the first enlisted man to go on to lead the Pentagon.
Democrats blasted the delayed confirmation, which has forced outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to remain at the Pentagon an additional two weeks.
“His record of service to this country is untarnished; 12 days later, President Obama’s support for his qualified nominee is still strong; 12 days later, the majority of senators still support his confirmation. Senate Republicans have delayed for the better part of two weeks for one reason: partisanship,” Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday morning, before a procedural midday vote that ended the filibuster and paved the way for the confirmation vote.
Republicans, however, warned that the incoming secretary assumes office with the largest number of opposition votes of anyone to ever win confirmation to lead the Pentagon. They expressed concern that the process left him politically weaker in his dealings with Congress and possibly abroad.
“I hope those concerns are proven wrong,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), a freshman on the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “I fervently hope that this confirmation does not embolden Iran to accelerate their nuclear weapons development; I fervently hope that this confirmation does not undermine our vital alliance with Israel.”
Cruz became one of Hagel’s leading opponents during his confirmation hearings and in further deliberation, effectively leading the filibuster since Feb. 14 as he demanded more documents about the Nebraskan’s personal finances after leaving the Senate four years ago. His staunch opposition to Hagel helped set off an internal Republican drama. Onetime friends, particularly Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), turned on Hagel and deemed him insufficiently strong in defending Israel, particularly from the potential nuclear threat of Iran.
At times, the opposition to Hagel took on personal tones, as McCain told one interviewer that there was a “lot of ill will” toward the Nebraskan for the way he turned his back on the GOP in his final years in the Senate.
Hagel countered the questions about how tough he would be toward Iran in a series of face-to-face meetings with key senators, during which he also recanted controversial remarks about the confirmation of an openly gay ambassador during the Clinton administration. However, in his confirmation hearing this month, Hagel appeared to stumble over several questions and gave his opponents more momentum.
At first, Republicans threatened a filibuster over demands that the White House turn over more information about the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya that left four Americans, including the ambassador, dead. As Obama officials turned over more information on that front, senior Republicans latched on to Cruz’s requests for more documents about the nominee’s private-sector life.
That prompted a nearly unified GOP caucus to block Hagel’s first filibuster vote Feb. 14, the first time a nominee for defense secretary faced such a partisan maneuver.
The White House and Democrats rejected those demands, and instead cited the lengthy background checks conducted by the FBI and the Senate Armed Services Committee.
By Tuesday, however, 18 Republicans joined 53 Democrats in an overwhelming vote to end the filibuster, giving some bipartisan shine to a position that has traditionally received huge backing from both Republicans and Democrats.
In the minutes leading up to Tuesday’s first vote, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said that he did not need any more information about Hagel’s finances, and instead said most Republicans simply objected to Hagel’s world view.
“While I think so highly of Senator Hagel and the work he did while he was in the Vietnam War, and he was in fact a hero, you look at these people and you say, what is their philosophy? He was one of only two [senators] that voted against sanctions for Iran, one of only four that voted against an effort to make the Iran Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group, to designate that,” said Inhofe, ranking Republican on the armed services panel. ”And one of only four that refused to sign a letter of solidarity with Israel.”
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