A divided Senate on Tuesday finally confirmed Chuck Hagel as secretary of Defense, handing President Barack Obama a victory on one of his key Cabinet appointments after weeks of partisan rancor.
The former Republican senator from Nebraska, who is expected to be sworn in on Wednesday, will take the reins at the Pentagon as some 66,000 Americans serve in the ongoing war in Afghanistan and just days before automatic, across-the-board spending cuts are set to kick in on Friday.
His confirmation, which passed 58-41, required only a simple majority after the Senate voted 71-27 earlier in the day to end debate. He needed at least 60 votes to clear the earlier procedural hurdle, and 18 Republicans joined 53 Democrats in the vote to end debate.
As the vote approached after Republicans blocked the first nearly two weeks ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid bemoaned all the delays, arguing Republicans had accomplished nothing.
“Twelve days ago the Republicans mounted a first of its kind filibuster on Sen. Hagel’s nomination. ... What has the filibuster gained my Republican colleagues? Twelve days later, nothing,” Reid said on the Senate floor. “Politically motivated delays send a terrible signal to our allies around the world, and they send a terrible signal to tens of thousands of Americans serving in Afghanistan, other parts of the world and … in the United States.”
Still, even as they approached the vote they knew they’d lose, key Republicans stuck by their opposition. Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he’d asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to stay on — or that he’d prefer former undersecretary of Defense for policy Michèle Flournoy or Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter — to Hagel.
And Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana and Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas both said the lingering controversy over Hagel was evidence in its own right that he should not take over the Pentagon.
“Sen. Hagel is clearly the wrong man for the job,” Cornyn said. “This isn’t about personality. This isn’t about politics. … He is the wrong man for the job.”