A deeply divided Senate voted to confirm Chuck Hagel as the next U.S. defense secretary, handing President Barack Obama's choice the job just days before billions of dollars in budget cuts hit the military. Hagel was expected to be sworn in Wednesday.
The vote was 58-41 Tuesday, with four Republicans joining the Democrats after an unprecedented fight that touched on Israel, Iran and nuclear weapons.
Republicans had opposed their onetime Republican Senate colleague, casting him as unqualified, hostile toward Israel and soft on Iran. They described him as a radical and far out of the mainstream.
The vote came just hours after Republicans dropped a delay and allowed the nomination to move forward.
Hagel, 66, a twice-wounded Vietnam combat veteran, succeeds Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. He joins Obama's new second-term, national security team of Secretary of State John Kerry and CIA Director-designate John Brennan at a time of uncertainty for a military emerging from two wars and fighting worldwide terrorism with smaller, deficit-driven budgets.
Obama welcomed the Senate vote, saying in a statement that “we will have the defense secretary our nation needs and the leader our troops deserve.”
Republican objections remained strong.
“I continue to have serious questions about whether Chuck Hagel is up to the job of being our secretary of defense,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, said in a statement. “I hope, for the sake of our own national security, he exceeds expectations.”
Among Hagel's challenges are deciding on troop levels in Afghanistan as the United States winds down its combat presence and dealing with $46 billion in budget cuts set to kick in on Friday. He also will have to work with lawmakers who spent weeks vilifying him.
Sen. John McCain, a Republican, clashed with his onetime friend over his opposition to President George W. Bush's decision to send an extra 30,000 troops to Iraq in 2007 at a point when the war seemed in danger of being lost. Hagel, who voted to authorize military force in Iraq, later opposed the conflict, comparing it to Vietnam and arguing that it shifted the focus from Afghanistan.
McCain said several Republican lawmakers had “a lot of ill will” toward the moderate Republican for his criticism of Bush and his backing for Democratic candidates. McCain voted against Hagel.
Republicans also challenged Hagel about a May 2012 study that he co-authored for the advocacy group Global Zero, which called for an 80 percent reduction of U.S. nuclear weapons and the eventual elimination of all the world's nuclear arms.
In an echo of the 2012 presidential campaign, Hagel faced an onslaught of criticism by well-funded, Republican-leaning outside groups that labeled the former senator “anti-Israel” and pressured senators to oppose the nomination.
Opponents were particularly incensed by Hagel's use of the term “Jewish lobby” to refer to pro-Israel groups. He apologized, saying he should have used another term and should not have said those groups have intimidated members of the Senate into favoring actions contrary to U.S. interests.
Hagel's nomination also became entangled in Republican demands for more information about the deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, last September. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in that attack. (AP)