After a contentious confirmation battle–unlike any previously seen against a nominee to lead the Defense Department–former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel was confirmed by the Senate Tuesday to succeed Leon Panetta.
The Senate voted to break a nearly two-week-long filibuster early Tuesday afternoon, with 18 Republicans joining every Democrat in the chamber to invoke cloture and bring Hagel’s nomination to a floor vote. Hagel was confirmed by the Senate in a 58-41 vote a few hours later, surpassing the simple majority required.
Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and former two-term Republican senator, is the first Defense Secretary nominee to be blocked by filibuster.
“What has the filibuster gained our Republican colleagues?” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asked on the Senate floor Tuesday morning. “Twelve days later–nothing. Nothing has changed. Twelve days later President Obama’s support for his qualified nominee is still strong. Twelve days later the majority of senators still support his confirmation. Senate Republicans have delayed for the better part of two weeks for one reason: partisanship.”
Hagel’s nomination had become a point of contention among a considerable and vocal group of Senate Republicans including Ted Cruz, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham. Critics characterized his January 31 confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee as disappointing, and the nominee as unprepared. In a heated exchange, McCain pressed Hagel chiefly on his opposition to a 2007 troop surge in Iraq, which McCain and a substantial group of Republican colleagues favored. Hagel also faced tough questioning over accusations of being too soft on Iran and too hard on Israel, including past comments on the “Jewish lobby” and past comments on a gay ambassador that could be construed as discriminatory.
McCain and Graham threatened to stall Hagel’s confirmation vote over dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s response to their request for information about the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi in September 2012. Employed in the private sector since his retirement from Congress in 2009, Hagel had no role in formulating the administration’s response to the Benghazi siege.
Both McCain and Graham voted to invoke cloture Tuesday, allowing Hagel’s nomination to proceed to all-but-certain confirmation on the Senate floor. Both senators voted against Hagel later that day. Republican Senators Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, and Richard Shelby of Alabama joined the Democratic caucus in supporting Hagel.
Should the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration go into effect March 1 as planned, Hagel will lead the Department amid austere cuts to the Pentagon budget.