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Hagel wins confirmation to be new defense secretary

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Chuck Hagel survived a rocky process and won Senate confirmation to become secretary of defense, surmounting a Republican filibuster that fizzled Tuesday — though he takes office chastened and potentially damaged.

The former Republican senator won the approval of his colleagues on a 58-41 vote, delivering a victory to President Obama, who stuck with Mr. Hagel despite a widely panned confirmation hearing and calls by defense hawk Republicans for the nomination to be withdrawn.

Only four Republicans voted in favor of Mr. Hagel, though Mr. Obama hailed that as “bipartisan confirmation.”

“We will have the defense secretary our nation needs and the leader our troops deserve,” the president said in a statement. “I will be counting on Chuck’s judgment and counsel as we end the war in Afghanistan, bring our troops home, stay ready to meet the threats of our time and keep our military the finest fighting force in the world.”

But the deep opposition among Republicans on a position that usually has wide bipartisan support could presage tough sledding for other Cabinet nominees, including two pending for the CIA director and the next Treasury Department secretary.

Mr. Hagel, 66, enlisted as an infantryman in the Vietnam War, earning two Purple Hearts, and served two terms as a senator from Nebraska. He retired in 2008 and backed Mr. Obama in last year’s election.

The president has said Mr. Hagel will be an independent voice at the helm of the Pentagon, though in his confirmation hearing he hewed to Mr. Obama’s stated positions on every major issue of importance.

Some of the 41 Republicans who voted against Mr. Hagel said he enters the Pentagon as damaged goods.

“He will take office with the weakest support of any defense secretary in modern history,” said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who served in the Senate with Mr. Hagel for six years.

An aide said Mr. Hagel will be sworn in on Wednesday morning. He takes the reins from Leon E. Panetta and faces a number of challenges, including continuing to wind down the war in Afghanistan and planning for contingencies with Iran and the rogue nation’s nuclear program.

But most immediately, he will have to contend with the automatic “sequester” cuts that take effect Friday and will slash tens of billions of dollars from the Defense Department over the rest of this year.

Mr. Obama has exempted the troops themselves from cuts, but that only means deeper trims to operations and equipment.

Mr. Panetta and top Pentagon brass earlier this month said they were reducing the U.S. Navy presence in the Persian Gulf region from two carrier groups to one carrier as a cost-savings measure.

Two weeks ago, Republicans launched a filibuster against Mr. Hagel, saying they wanted more time to look over his record and to try to pry loose some information about his foreign clients in the four years since he left the Senate.

But no revelations were forthcoming and the opposition stalled. Democrats, sensing victory, pushed ahead.

“Nothing has changed,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “Twelve days later, Sen. Hagel’s exemplary record of service to his country remains untarnished.”

More than enough Republicans opposed the nomination to have continued the filibuster to block him, but in the end they did not have the stomach for it. Fifteen Republicans voted to end the filibuster but voted against confirming Mr. Hagel.

One Republican, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, voted to filibuster Mr. Hagel but then voted in favor of confirming him.

Mr. Paul’s spokeswoman, Moira Bagley, said the senator voted to filibuster because some of his colleagues had unanswered questions. But Mr. Paul also believes presidents are entitled to leeway on their appointments.

“That is why Sen. Paul voted in favor of Sen. John Kerry, with whom he largely disagrees on foreign policy, to serve as secretary of state, and that is why he voted for final passage of the nomination of Sen. Hagel this evening, with whom he also disagrees on a number of issues,” Ms. Bagley said.

Republican opponents criticized Mr. Hagel for statements and moves he made during and after his time as senator, including comments that the “Jewish lobby” intimidates lawmakers, and votes and statements opposing stiffer sanctions on Iran.

“I’m disappointed not one Democrat stepped forward to express concerns about Sen. Hagel’s views on Israel and Iran,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who vehemently fought the nomination — though he voted against filibustering. “I believe from his past actions, he has shown antagonism toward the state of Israel. In these dangerous times, his nomination sends the worst possible signal to our enemies in Iran.”

Mr. Hagel apologized for the “Jewish lobby” comment and explained his Iran stance, saying he didn’t think Congress should try to dictate foreign policy to the administration.

Defense secretaries usually are confirmed overwhelmingly, though there have been notable exceptions. Former Republican Sen. John Tower’s nomination in 1989 was defeated by his former colleagues by a vote of 53-47, in a rejection that still stings some Republicans.

But the Hagel blockade was the first filibuster of a defense nominee, and it left Republicans arguing that they weren’t filibustering for the purpose of blocking the nomination, but rather to force the administration to turn over more information.

“This happens all the time,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

 

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