Chuck Hagel testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during… (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel, who won two Purple Hearts in the Vietnam War, survived the turbulent battle over his nomination to lead the Pentagon, where he will confront two new challenges: potentially dramatic budget cuts and tensions with congressional critics.
The Senate voted largely along party lines Tuesday to confirm Hagel as the nation's 24th secretary of Defense, making the former Republican senator from Nebraska the first Vietnam veteran in the post. The 58-41 vote marked the lowest level of support for any successful Cabinet nominee since 2007, when Michael B. Mukasey won 53 votes as George W. Bush's third attorney general.
Just four Republicans joined the chamber's Democratic majority to support their former colleague, producing the narrowest result for a successful Defense appointment in at least four decades. Hagel's predecessor, Leon E. Panetta, was confirmed unanimously less than two years ago.
Earlier in the day, senators voted by a wider margin to end an unprecedented filibuster of his nomination, a delay Republicans said was necessary to fully vet past statements and related documents. Opponents said Hagel was too soft on Iran and too hard on Israel.
His confirmation was a victory for the administration, which was wary of losing a fight for a marquee Cabinet slot at the start of President Obama's second term. Earlier, a top candidate for secretary of State, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, withdrew after intense GOP criticism of her explanation of the terrorist attack on a diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya.
Obama hailed Tuesday's vote as "bipartisan." In Hagel, the president said, "We will have the Defense secretary our nation needs and the leader our troops deserve."
In a statement, Hagel vowed to "work closely with Congress to ensure that we maintain the strongest military in the world and continue to protect this great nation."
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, predicted that his colleagues would quickly move on, given the challenges the nation faces internationally. "Everybody here who's worked with Sen. Hagel I think realizes that he's not the kind of person who carries grudges. And Republicans here I think vote their conscience," he said. "I just don't see any negative effect on his capability to run the Defense Department."
Levin's Republican counterpart, Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, said he continued to have "serious concerns" about Hagel's ability to lead the Pentagon but was "ready and willing" to work with him. Hagel's first order of business, Inhofe said, was averting "devastating cuts" to military spending set to take effect Friday, which would lead to a 13% reduction through September, according to the Office of Management and Budget.
Hagel must also oversee the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, respond to an increasing terrorist threat in North Africa and contend with concerns over the Obama administration's use of drone aircraft.
In Hagel, Obama opted not to choose a nominee from his party. Instead, he selected a friend with whom he had traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008 and whose outspoken criticism of the George W. Bush administration war policies he admired. Hagel's trip with Obama, then the Democratic presidential nominee, in part drove GOP opposition.
Democrats also had concerns, including Hagel's objection to the appointment of an openly gay man as ambassador to Luxembourg during the Clinton administration. Hagel apologized for his comments even before Obama officially nominated him.
Opposition to Hagel's appointment grew after a shaky performance at his confirmation hearing. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Hagel's chief antagonists, used the nomination as leverage to press the Obama administration for more information about the president's response to the Benghazi raid, which led to the deaths of the ambassador and three other Americans.
Fifteen GOP senators signed a letter last week urging the president to withdraw the nomination.
"We should not be installing a Defense secretary who is obviously not qualified for the job," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the lead author of that letter, said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
Graham said that Hagel now had "to prove to people that he's up to the job."