WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Tuesday to confirm Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran and former Republican senator from Nebraska, as the 24th secretary of defense after a brutal confirmation process that saw members of his own party question his capacity to lead the Pentagon.
Just hours after a vote to end the first-ever filibuster of a defense nominee, Hagel was approved 58-41, by far the narrowest margin for a successful appointment going back to the Carter administration. Hagel could get to work at the Pentagon as soon as Wednesday.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, voted against the nomination and independent Sen. Angus King voted in favor of Hagel.
King, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said, “Having met Senator Hagel personally, and having heard his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, I am convinced that he is a man of honesty, integrity and intelligence, who will be a strong leader for the Department of Defense, offer the president unvarnished advice, and work tirelessly to lead and support the brave men and women of our armed services. Furthermore, it is a testament to Senator Hagel’s qualifications that he garnered the bipartisan support of former top government officials, including former Secretaries of Defense Bill Cohen and Robert Gates, as well as former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright, and many other distinguished government and former military officials. Ultimately, I believe Senator Hagel will be a strong leader for the Department of Defense and, as a member of the Armed Services Committee, I look forward to working with him.”
Regarding her opposition to Hagel, Collins said on Feb. 13, “several critical issues loom large as I contemplate the threats facing our national security and consider Senator Hagel’s nomination. These issues include the proliferation of terrorism, the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran and the reality of a nuclear-armed North Korea, an increasingly dangerous and unstable Middle East that threatens our national interests and our ally Israel, and the possibility of deep and indiscriminate cuts in the defense budget that would undermine America’s strength and security.
“Senator Hagel’s views on these critical threats are unsettling to me. For example, with regard to Hezbollah, Senator Hagel was unwilling to ask the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization in 2006. While 88 other senators, including then-Senators Obama and Clinton, supported this reasonable request, Senator Hagel did not.”
In addition Collins added that Hagel “supports multilateral sanctions contending that they work better and has opposed unilateral sanctions. Certainly, in an ideal world, multilateral sanctions can be more effective, and I welcome other countries that wish to join the United States in adopting sanctions. But the United States’ imposition of sanctions — even if we were to act virtually alone — not only helps to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program but also demonstrates moral leadership.
“We are at a moment in history when there can be no reservation, hesitancy, or opposition to enact any and all sanctions that could change Iran’s calculus regarding its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
“I believe a vote in favor of Senator Hagel would send the wrong signal to our military, the American people, and to the world about America’s resolve regarding the most important national security challenges of our era. I do not believe his past positions, votes and statements match the challenges of our time, and his presentations at his hearing did nothing to ease my doubts. I regret having to reach that conclusion given our personal relationship and my admiration for Senator Hagel’s military service. But I have concluded that he is not well-suited for the tremendous challenges our country faces during this dangerous era in our history.”
President Barack Obama announced his choice of Hagel to lead the Pentagon on Jan. 7, calling him “the leader that our troops deserve.” A sergeant in Vietnam and two-time Purple Heart recipient, Hagel becomes the first veteran of that war and the first former enlisted man to become defense secretary.
Hagel’s 2008 trip to Iraq and Afghanistan with Obama, then the Democratic presidential nominee, in part drove Republican opposition to installing one of their own former colleagues in the Pentagon. In the weeks that followed, critics also pored over his past speeches and other public statements to question his views on Israel, Iran and other international hot spots.
Democrats also had concerns, including Hagel’s objection to the appointment of an openly gay man as ambassador to Luxembourg during the Clinton administration. The former senator apologized for his comments even before Obama officially nominated him.
Opposition grew to Hagel’s appointment after a dismal performance at his confirmation hearing. Two days after the Senate Armed Service Committee moved his nomination on a party-line vote, Senate Republicans mounted a filibuster to delay a final confirmation vote, saying they needed additional time to review his record and get answers to questions.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also used Hagel’s nomination as leverage to press the Obama administration to answer his questions about the terrorist raid on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Libya that led to four American fatalities, including the ambassador.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a freshman and outspoken conservative, went so far as to suggest that Hagel may have received income from enemy states like North Korea.
No new bombshells emerged during a 10-day Presidents Day week recess, however, and 14 Republicans switched their votes to end the filibuster. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the “over-the-top” opposition from some Republicans ultimately paved the way for confirmation.
Among Hagel’s most immediate challenges could be guiding the military through looming cuts to the defense budget — 13 percent in the current fiscal year, according to the Office of Management and Budget — because of the automatic budget cuts scheduled to take effect Friday.
Distributed by MCT Information Services