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Senate confirms Gates for Defense

December 07, 2006|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to confirm Robert M. Gates as the 22nd U.S. secretary of Defense, giving the former CIA director decisive bipartisan support amid the increasingly divisive debate over the war in Iraq.

The Senate voted 95 to 2 to approve Gates' nomination. White House officials said he would be sworn in Dec. 18.

The quick handover would mean Donald H. Rumsfeld would fall less than two weeks short of becoming the longest-serving secretary of Defense since the position was created after World War II.

The two votes against Gates came from Republicans -- outgoing Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, who opposed Gates over his criticism of Iraq policy and his support for opening talks with Iran and Syria.

President Bush thanked the Senate for moving quickly and said he was heartened by the bipartisan support.

"Dr. Gates has transformed the organizations he has led and empowered them to successfully address complex issues," Bush said. "I am confident that his leadership and capabilities will help our country meet its current military challenges and prepare for emerging threats of the 21st century."

Gates won over critics of the administration's handling of the war on both sides of the aisle during an adulatory confirmation hearing Tuesday in which he vowed to consider all options in Iraq and openly criticized some of the White House's decisions during the conflict. Democrats cited his openness as their reason for supporting the nomination.

"I was heartened to see the forthrightness and candidness employed by Dr. Gates at his confirmation hearing yesterday," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said during Wednesday's debate on the nomination. "He fully admitted the need for a 'change of approach' in Iraq, stating his view that we are not currently winning the war."

People close to Gates say he is unlikely to make widespread changes among top personnel in the Pentagon, and is expected to ask the department's No. 2 official, Deputy Secretary Gordon R. England, to remain.

Some officials tied closely to Rumsfeld have announced their intention to leave. Pentagon intelligence chief Stephen A. Cambone, a Rumsfeld ally who pushed hard for tough interrogation practices in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, said last week that he would leave at the end of the month.

Gates has said he plans to travel to Iraq early in his tenure to get views from U.S. commanders on strategy and troop numbers.

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com

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