WASHINGTON The Senate voted 58-41 Tuesday to confirm Chuck Hagel as the new Defense secretary to succeed Leon Panetta, thus ending a contentious battle over his nomination.
Senators voted 71-27 earlier Tuesday afternoon to end debate on President Obama's nomination of Hagel, a Republican former senator from Nebraska.
Hagel will immediately inherit a budget crisis. Last week, the Pentagon announced it plans to furlough the majority of its 800,000 civilian employees to help meet a $46 billion shortfall caused by automatic spending cuts that begin March 1 and its stopgap budget that prevents shifting funds to urgent needs.
The contentious nomination process will not prevent Hagel from dealing with Congress, George Little, a Pentagon spokesman, said after the vote. Hagel is a "team player" whose interest in cooperation will extend to Congress, Little said.
Hagel has been briefed on issues facing the Pentagon and will be ready to start work immediately, Little said.
Hagel faced opposition from Republicans. He cleared the Senate Armed Services Committee on a 14-11 party-line vote Feb. 12. On Feb. 14, Republicans blocked a final vote on the nomination. His nomination sat idle last week with the Senate in recess. Of his major critics, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., signaled that he would no longer oppose a vote on Hagel's nomination, setting the stage for Tuesday's vote.
Three of Hagel's chief antagonists during the confirmation hearings Republican Sens. McCain, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ted Cruz of Texas all voted no.
"There were other, more capable choices available, and I regret President Obama did not choose one of them," Graham said in a statement. "Having said this, I do believe it is the president's prerogative to pick his Cabinet, and I will work with Senator Hagel to ensure our defense at home and security around the globe is not diminished."
McCain voted to end debate but against Hagel's confirmation.
In his Senate tenure, Hagel was close to both McCain and Graham. All three voted to approve military action in Iraq. As the war continued, Hagel began to criticize the Bush administration's handling of the conflict. His criticism of the surge of troops in 2007 that helped bring down violence there angered McCain, who blasted Hagel for it at his confirmation hearing.
The ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., opposed Hagel and questioned his toughness on Iran and its nuclear ambitions. Graham has said comments Hagel has made show a lack of commitment to Israel. Cruz raised questions about the propriety of Hagel's income, suggesting he might have received funds from North Korea.
Hagel has maintained, in answers to the Senate, that he has received no money from such nations.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who leads the Armed Services Committee, has said Hagel supplied the committee with the information it needed to approve his nomination.
Hagel, 66, was born in North Platte, Neb. In 1968, Hagel and his brother Tom were both wounded in combat in Vietnam. Chuck Hagel rescued his brother and was awarded two Purple Heart medals.
Hagel served two terms in the Senate from 1997 to 2009.