WASHINGTON: The Senate has voted to confirm Chuck Hagel to be the next U.S. defense secretary. The vote Tuesday was 58-41, with four Republicans joining Democrats in backing President Barack Obama’s nominee.
The vote ended a contentious fight over the president’s choice for his second-term national security team.
Republicans opposed the former 12-year Republican senator casting him as out of the mainstream and overly critical of Israel. But Democrats stood together for Hagel, a twice-wounded Vietnam combat veteran.
Hagel will succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is stepping down after four years as CIA director and Pentagon chief.
The vote came just hours after Republicans dropped their delay and allowed the nomination to move forward. The Senate vote to end the delaying maneuver known as a filibuster was 71-27.
It was the first time such a procedural tactic had been used to delay consideration of a nominee for secretary of defense.
Democrats control 55 votes in the Senate, and none came out against Hagel. Many Republicans have slammed Hagel’s criticism of former President George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq war.
Opponents also worry that Hagel will be too complicit in efforts by Obama to cut Pentagon spending as a way to deal with yawning U.S. budget deficits.
Some of Hagel’s most vehement opponents made a last-ditch appeal on the Senate floor for his nomination to be stopped before the vote Tuesday. They argued that Hagel would be weakened in running the Defense Department because he would not be confirmed with strong bipartisan support.
James Inhofe, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he had even called Leon Panetta, the retiring secretary of defense, and asked him to remain at the Pentagon.
Panetta, 74, who has made no secret of his desire to retire to his home in California, declined.
Faulting a range of Hagel’s past statements on Iran, Israel and other matters, Inhofe also pledged to work for the quick confirmation of another potential nominee if Hagel were withdrawn.
“We have a lot of them out there who would be confirmed in a matter of minutes,” he added, naming Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, and Ashton Carter, the current deputy defense secretary, as more acceptable alternatives.
But Democrats blasted Republicans for the delay when the country is at war and facing a budget crisis, and pushed for the vote to go ahead.
“Politically motivated delays send a terrible signal to our allies and to the world. And they send a terrible signal to tens of thousands of Americans serving in Afghanistan. For the sake of national security, it’s time to set aside this partisanship,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.
Also Tuesday, congressional officials said leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee plan to hold a vote Thursday on the confirmation of White House aide John Brennan to become director of the CIA.
The officials said some members of the committee were unsatisfied with White House responses to requests for documents on drone policy and the attacks on U.S. installations in Benghazi, Libya, last Sept. 11, but the panel still expects to call a vote on Brennan later this week.
If the committee clears the nomination, which congressional officials say is expected, then Senate Democratic leaders hope to hold a final Senate floor vote on Brennan’s confirmation next week, the officials said.
Some committee Republicans were disappointed with what they regard as Brennan’s evasive answers to questions about what he did when he learned that the CIA under Bush used “enhanced interrogation techniques” on captured militants. Brennan was a high-level CIA official at the time.
Some committee Democrats have expressed concern about the administration’s refusal to turn over a full set of classified legal documents outlining the administration’s legal justifications for launching unmanned drone strikes.
The White House tried to take some steam out of such opposition Tuesday by allowing some legislators and staffers access to documents and emails related to the attacks in Benghazi.