The Senate approved former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel to become the 24th defense secretary. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate ended one of the most contentious fights in recent memory over a Cabinet nominee, confirming former Nebraska GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary.
But Republican lawmakers made clear they have their doubts about their one-time colleague's qualifications for the position, signaling they plan to challenge Hagel just as he prepares to deal with what increasingly appear to be inevitable budget reductions.
In a 58-41 vote, the upper chamber approved Hagel to become the 24th defense secretary. Once he is sworn in, Hagel will immediately inherit the war in Afghanistan, the fight against al-Qaeda, growing unrest in North Africa, a still-murky strategic shift toward Asia and likely cuts to planned spending.
GOP Sens. Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Richard Shelby of Alabama, and Rand Paul of Kentucky joined Democrats in voting for Hagel.
Paul told reporters as he left the chamber, desipte his concerns about Hagel, he believes presidents should be able to choose their Cabinet members.
“The state of the world is such, and the sequestration threat is such, that the number of Republicans last time who voted to keep debate going realized you just cannot have uncertainty and limbo at the Defense Department at this time, both in terms of the world situation and the budget situation,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.
Levin said that Hagel, once he is sworn in, should “put his nose to the grindstone and address the major issues that the country faces.”
The Pentagon announced Hagel will be sworn in Wednesday morning.
There clearly is some ill will remaining between Hagel and some senators after a sometimes-nasty confirmation process that saw GOP senators raise pointed questions about Hagel's views on Iran, the U.S.-Israel friendship, defense spending and using military force.
Senate Minority Whip Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, in a statement released a few hours before the final vote, said Hagel is “clearly the wrong man for the job.”
“There is simply no way to sugarcoat it: Sen. Hagel's performance before the Senate Armed Services Committee was remarkably inept,” the second-ranking Senate Republican said, “and we should not be installing a defense secretary who is obviously not qualified for the job, and who holds dangerously misguided views on some of the most important issues facing national security policy for our country.”
And freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who launched some of the most damaging allegations about Hagel during his confirmation hearing, called him the “most controversial secretary of defense in modern times,” adding, “no one has ever been confirmed to the position with more than 11 ‘no' votes, until today, when a record number of senators voted against his nomination.”
Levin, however, told reporters he expects lingering bad feelings will fade.
“It was a vote that was based on a number of statements that he had made, positions that he had alleged taken — and some of them badly mischaracterized,” Levin said. “He's a professional guy. He's been through political rough-and-tumble and keeps his eye on the prize, which is American security and the threats that face us.
“Whether or not this was a 99-1 vote or whatever … I don't think that will have a real effect on his work ethic,” Levin said.
To be sure, some analysts say the political damage Republicans inflicted on Hagel could hinder him in managing the Pentagon and dealing with Congress.
“Had he escaped the [confirmation process] relatively unscathed and gotten a dozen or so GOP senators, it wouldn't be an issue a year from now,” Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute, and a former Senate defense aide, said the day after the SASC spent eight hours grilling the nominee on Jan. 31. That bruising hearing “didn't set Sen. Hagel up well at all for budget battles that are coming at him right off the start. … To cut the deals he's going to have to cut, it takes political capital.”
But Levin said, “he has not been damaged,” adding he doubts the military service chiefs sense the incoming boss is too politically weak to block certain proposals they put forward to deal with the sequestration cuts.
To be sure, Hagel has some work to do to win over still-skeptical GOP lawmakers.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a senior SASC member, told reporters he still believes Hagel “is unqualified for the job.” But McCain said it is not necessary for Hagel to meet with scorned Republican senators.
Asked by reporters whether they want Hagel to meet one-on-one with them in coming weeks to mend fences damaged during the confirmation process, several Republican demurred. But they made clear he needs to prove himself once in the job.
“I don't think personalities will be a problem. I like Chuck, and have been reluctant to criticize him. But I did disagree with some of his policy positions — substantially,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., another SASC member, told reporters. “He's going to be challenged. I think he's going to have to prove to the American people, and to the Congress, that he can manage that department, that he can sufficiently handle the spending squeeze that he's going to face.”
As the Senate was voting, Hagel continued to prepare for his new job. While Congress has been arguing over whether to confirm Hagel, the former Nebraska senator has been receiving briefings on top DoD issues.
“Sen. Hagel has signaled his very strong commitment right away to get down to business, to get deeply invested in the work of the Pentagon and its military and civilian workers,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said during a Tuesday afternoon briefing.
Little said Hagel could still be an effective defense secretary who can work with Congress despite facing weeks of intense public criticism from opponents.
“I think Sen. Hagel is someone who has spent much of his life in the halls of the United States Congress,” Little said. “He understands the importance of healthy debate, including during confirmation process. And I think he is going to come in with the philosophy that he's going to be a team player inside this building, and that will extend to the United States Congress.”
The confirmation vote came after Democrats failed on Feb. 14 to attract the five GOP votes they needed to halt debate. Republican senators wanted to use last week's recess to continue reviewing Hagel's controversial record, which turned up nothing that led them to again prevent the nomination from being allowed a 51-vote threshold on the Senate floor.
The final vote was made possible following a lunch-hour cloture vote of 71-27, which garnered enough Republican support to breach 60 required votes.
During two hours of debate on the chamber floor prior to the cloture vote, Democrats such as Levin defended Hagel's record. Levin dubbed the Vietnam War veteran a “patriot.”
But Republicans continued to hammer the nominee. Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., repeated his call that the administration nominate another individual to replace the outgoing Leon Panetta.
As it became clear Tuesday afternoon that Hagel would soon become the 24th defense secretary, even his most fervent critics began to look ahead.
"In these dangerous times, his nomination sends the worst possible signal to our enemies in Iran," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., adding he has "serious questions about whether Chuck Hagel is up to the job of being our secretary of defense."
“Chuck Hagel can prove his critics wrong by standing by his confirmation commitments. He has an enormous task ahead of him, and running the Defense Department will require principled leadership on the world's stage,” Cruz said. “I wish Secretary Hagel success in his new role and am committed to working with him to keep America safe and strong.”
In a twist, it seemed fitting that Hagel's partisan and unpredictable confirmation process ended with the senator who lobbed the most explosive political ammunition at him also perhaps being the first to call him “Secretary Hagel.”
Marcus Weisgerber contributed to this report.