Chuck Hagel won Senate approval Tuesday to become defense secretary after a pitched battle and as budget cuts loom.
Mr. Hagel was confirmed 58 to 41—the narrowest vote ever for a defense secretary. Some believe the largely party-line vote could leave Mr. Hagel, the successor to Leon Panetta, in a weakened position.
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“I think that he’s got some work to do,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.), who voted against confirming Mr. Hagel. “Traditionally it’s been a strong measure to have your secretary of defense have overwhelming bipartisan support and he does not have that.”
Mr. Hagel’s views on the military are similar in important respects to President Barack Obama’s, a major reason he was nominated. While Mr. Hagel has backed a strong military, he has been deeply skeptical that military power can solve intractable problems or change a country.
His skepticism was born of his Vietnam War experience and hardened by his view that the war in Iraq and the 2007 troop surge were mistakes, wasting American lives and money.
Mr. Hagel’s relations with Congress and stance on the budget will be tested quickly. With across-the-board spending cuts due to go into effect on Friday, Mr. Hagel will be thrown immediately into the debate about how—or whether—to avert the cuts.
A former Republican senator from Nebraska, Mr. Hagel becomes the first defense secretary who needed to garner 60 votes to pass a procedural hurdle before Tuesday’s confirmation vote. Earlier Tuesday, more than a dozen Senate Republicans put aside qualms about Mr. Hagel to join Democrats in a procedural vote that effectively ended a filibuster, paving the way for a confirmation vote.
Just four GOP senators—Kentucky’s Rand Paul, Alabama’s Richard Shelby, Nebraska’s Mike Johanns and Mississippi’s Thad Cochran—voted for Mr. Hagel’s nomination. Mr. Paul had voted twice to delay the nomination, but after the second attempt failed, he decided to vote for Mr. Hagel.
“As he has said before, the president should be entitled to some leeway on his political appointments,” said Moira Bagley, Mr. Paul’s spokeswoman.
The hyperpartisan battle over a cabinet nominee is rare. Mr. Hagel will be the first Pentagon head to win confirmation despite opposition from dozens of senators. Eleven senators voted “no” on George C. Marshall’s nomination in 1950, the previous high, according to Senate records. Still, President George W. Bush’s attorney general nominees won confirmation by slimmer margins: John Ashcroft won by 16 votes, and Michael Mukasey won by 13.
More often, the Senate bears down on nominees during their confirmation hearings and then proceeds to a vote without delay, as was the case for Treasury nominee Jacob Lew. The Senate Finance Committee voted 19-5 Tuesday to send Mr. Lew’s nomination to the Senate floor for a vote, possibly as early as Wednesday.
Mr. Lew received bipartisan support despite Republican scrutiny and criticism of his tenure at Citigroup Inc., his investment in an offshore fund and financial perks he received while working at New York University.
At Citigroup, where he worked from 2006 to 2009, he got to keep more bonus pay if he moved on to a high-level position in the federal government than to a private-sector competitor, according to committee records. Mr. Lew said he sought the provision due to his interest in potentially returning to the public sector.
“Citigroup received a taxpayer-funded bailout and gave Mr. Lew a piece of it on his way out the door,” said Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), who cast one of the five votes against Mr. Lew.
Mr. Hagel’s nomination faced far more scrutiny. Many Republicans said he isn’t supportive enough of Israel and is too weak on Iran. A number of outside political groups with anonymous donors have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to derail the nomination. In his confirmation hearing Mr. Hagel pledged that he would be supportive of Israel and would work to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, in a written statement Tuesday evening, anticipated “working closely” with Mr. Hagel, and said: “Under the Obama Administration, security ties between the United States and Israel have been superb. We are fully confident that those bonds will grow stronger still as our countries continue to meet common challenges to our security.”