WASHINGTON — After weeks of divisive political wrangling along party lines over the nomination of Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense, senators voted 58-to-41 on Tuesday afternoon to confirm him for the top Cabinet seat.
Hagel, a former Nebraska senator, will be the first serviceman to end his career in the enlisted ranks to serve as President Barack Obama's top defense adviser when he is sworn into office Wednesday morning.
The vote took place late Tuesday afternoon, with little additional debate and only a floor statement by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., reaffirming his support of Hagel. The vote split mainly along party lines, with all Democrats voting to support him, and just four Republicans joining them: Richard Shelby of Alabama, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
“It is time to end the uncertainty relative to the leadership at the Pentagon,” Levin said in arguments before the final vote, expressing worries about a looming sequester deadline set to hit in three days. “The time has come to now confirm Chuck Hagel as our next secretary of defense.”
“The president needs a secretary of defense in whom he has trust, who will give him unvarnished advice, a person of integrity and one who has a personal understanding of the consequences of decisions relative to the use of military force,” Levin said.
Senators had earlier on Tuesday voted 71-to-27, after a round of more spirited and extended debate, to finalize Chuck Hagel’s nomination for secretary for defense, which cleared the way for a full Senate floor vote.
Representing the GOP side on the final vote, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., yielded his time on the floor in the afternoon, having explained at length earlier in the morning, his reasons for not supporting Hagel’s confirmation, mainly because of his past controversial statements.
He also noted that a number of GOP senators wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, requesting he nominate someone that both parties could agree upon, such as former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy or Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.
He also said that despite Democratic accusations that GOP lawmakers “filibustered” Hagel’s nomination in a Feb. 14 vote to end debate on his nomination, they did not do so, he said. Rather, they used their 60-vote threshold to delay a final vote, which “happens all the time,” Inhofe said.
Hagel’s nomination for the top Cabinet position has been marked by a series of delays over the past few weeks as Republican lawmakers demanded more financial information or additional texts of his past speeches.
A cloud of controversy lingered over Hagel's nomination even before his name was offered up on Jan. 7 by President Barack Obama to serve on his Cabinet. It beleaguered the nomination for more than two months as Hagel tried to fend off criticism and scrutiny of a raft of his past statements, that his detractors painted as evidence that he would be soft on Iran, unsupportive of Israel as a key ally and unwilling to admit the success of the surge in Iraq.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., during the morning vote, criticized GOP Senators for delaying the vote “for one reason and one reason only: partisanship” and for mounting “a first of its kind filibuster” on Hagel’s nomination, while GOP lawmakers maintained it was not a filibuster.
Democratic senators, who maintain a 55-45 edge in the Senate, tried unsuccessfully on Feb. 14 to stop the discussion and call for a final vote on Hagel’s confirmation. A 60-vote majority would have been needed to overcome the delay – and this move became the source of continuing debate between both parties.
“And what has their filibuster gained my Republican colleagues?” Reid asked in Tuesday’s floor debate. “Twelve days later, nothing has changed. Twelve days later, Senator Hagel’s exemplary record of service to his country remains untarnished … Twelve days later, the majority of the senators still support his confirmation.”
Yet, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said before the morning vote that he was troubled by Hagel’s statements, which showed a reluctance to be tough on Iran and a lack of support for Israel. And he said he wasn’t satisfied by Hagel’s repudiation of his statements about Israel and the “Jewish lobby” in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Calling him a “divisive and distracting choice” for the office, Wicker called Hagel out for blaming his statements “on a poor choice of words.”
“One or two troubling statements might not be disqualifying, when taken alone, but all of the positions taken together paint what I believe is an accurate picture of this nominee,” Wicker said during Tuesday’s floor debate. “Changing viewpoints for the purpose of political expediency or to make headlines is not the mark of a steadfast leader.”
In contrast, Reid and Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., advocated for Hagel’s confirmation based on the former Nebraska senator’s reputation as someone who speaks his mind and would be able to provide frank advice to the president.