WASHINGTON — The Senate confirmed Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense Tuesday after a bruising bout with Republicans, while President Obama’s nominee to be Treasury secretary moved closer to approval with bipartisan support. The votes suggested that the Republican blockade against the administration’s second-term nominees was beginning to ease.
After escaping a filibuster from members of his own party, Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, prevailed in a 58 to 41 vote — the smallest margin for a defense secretary since the position was created in 1947, according to Senate records. Fifty-two Democrats, two independents, and four Republicans backed Hagel, and 41 Republicans opposed him.
The narrow victory raised questions about whether Hagel would arrive at the Pentagon as a diminished leader as it faces deep budget cuts set to take effect on Friday.
Hours before the final vote on Hagel, the Senate Finance Committee approved the nomination of Jacob J. Lew as Treasury secretary on a 19-5 vote. Attention is now turning to the coming vote by the Senate Intelligence Committee on the president’s nominee as CIA director, John O. Brennan.
The chances for Brennan remain good, though his confirmation is not expected to be smooth, as both Republicans and Democrats have raised objections over the agency’s use of drones to kill US citizens suspected of terrorism. Republicans also see the Brennan vote, like the fight over Hagel, as leverage to press other issues with the White House.
Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, said that he favored a longer confirmation process to force the White House to disclose more about the drone program. “There’s an old saw that after somebody is confirmed, they don’t even owe you a holiday card,” he said Tuesday. “This is the time for vigilant oversight.”
Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, has called for similar disclosures on drones and has threatened to use “every procedural option at my disposal” to hold back Brennan’s nomination. Senator John McCain of Arizona and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Republicans, have threatened to delay the nomination over another issue: the attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. Both made demands for information during the confirmation of Hagel, who, unlike Brennan, has had no role in formulating the Obama administration’s policies.
Even if these efforts serve only to inconvenience the White House and cause the president and his nominees mild political damage, Republicans say they are satisfied they are forcing the confirmation process to be deliberative.
“Probably the best known power of the United States Senate is advise and consent,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican. “Movies have been made about it, books have been written about it. It’s what we do. And we’d be derelict in our duty if we didn’t examine the qualification of our president’s cabinet.”
But Democrats said the process, particularly with Hagel, had hardly been reflective, let alone worthy of the Senate.
Senator Barbara Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, allowed that Republican colleagues were entitled to questions. “But I understand that Jack Lew had 638 questions that he had to answer from one senator,” she said. “Now, really? If you don’t want the guy or gal, vote against them. But don’t drag it out. That’s not politics, that’s petulance.”
Republicans in the Senate, joined by conservative activists, waged an all-out campaign to discredit Hagel that included digging into financial records for evidence that he was paid by anti-American groups and scouring his old speeches for signs that he was hostile to Israel. Those efforts produced little, forcing most Republicans to acquiesce after filibustering his nomination in an initial vote this month.
But even before Hagel takes office, questions are growing about whether the fight over his confirmation will wound his ability to lead the Pentagon at a time of upheaval both at home and overseas. With a series of huge budget cuts known as the sequester set to go into effect at the end of the week, cuts that will fall hard on the Defense Department if Congress cannot negotiate a compromise, Hagel will inherit myriad challenges.
Asked at a Defense Department press conference whether Hagel could still be effective despite the difficult confirmation process, George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, was unambiguous: “Absolutely.”
“He has spent much of his life in the halls of the United States Congress,” Little said. “He understands the importance of a healthy debate.”
Privately, some Democrats were concerned. One congressional official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it was alarming that Hagel was not confirmed with the broad bipartisan support that the Senate usually extends to nominees for defense secretary.
“This is unprecedented territory,” the official said. “He is not just weakened with Republicans. Just think about the Democrats who put their neck out for a Republican nominee for defense secretary. You think it was easy keeping all those Democrats on board?”
Nearly all recent defense secretaries have sailed through their final votes, usually receiving just one or two no votes. The exception was John G. Tower, the nominee of President George Bush, who was defeated in a 53 to 47 floor vote amid allegations of alcohol abuse and womanizing.
Hagel was the only nominee for defense secretary to face a filibuster. On Tuesday, 18 Republicans joined Democrats in voting to cut off debate, while 27 voted to continue the filibuster.
The vote on Tuesday brought to a close an unusually contentious nomination fight, one that surprised many in Washington for how personal and bitter it became.