Senate approves Hagel as new U.S. secretary of defense

WASHINGTON Wed Feb 27, 2013 4:18am IST

Former U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to be Defense Secretary, on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 31, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing/Files

Former U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to be Defense Secretary, on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 31, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing/Files

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Tuesday confirmed Chuck Hagel as President Barack Obama's new secretary of defense, ending an unusually acrimonious confirmation fight.

The Senate voted 58-41 to confirm the former Republican senator as the civilian leader of the Pentagon in a largely party line vote. Just four Republicans joined the Democrats and independents in support of Hagel's nomination.

The Senate had voted earlier on Tuesday to end debate and move forward, almost two weeks after Republicans launched a filibuster to block Hagel's nomination. It was the first time such a procedural tactic had been used to delay consideration of a nominee for secretary of defense.

The battle over Hagel's confirmation, a hard-fought victory for the Obama administration, is one of many bitter partisan struggles between Democrats and Republicans at a time when Congress is widely criticized for its inability to agree on even the most basic measures to run the country.

Many Republicans fiercely opposed Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who angered party leaders as a Nebraska senator when he criticized former President George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq war.

Some charged that Hagel is outside mainstream security thinking and raised questions about whether he is sufficiently supportive of Israel or tough enough on Iran. Opponents also worried that Hagel would be too complicit in efforts by Obama to cut Pentagon spending as a way to deal with yawning U.S. budget deficits.

"The confirmation process probably leaves a few light scars on Hagel because Republican critics have raised doubts about his judgment," said Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution.

"But I think Hagel would have faced tough scrutiny and criticism from Republicans once in office, even had he originally sailed to confirmation," she said.

Hagel's confirmation comes as the Pentagon faces the prospect of cutting $46 billion in spending over the next seven months of the fiscal year. The cut, scheduled to go into effect on Friday, comes as the department is already implementing $487 billion in spending reductions over the next decade.

Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Hagel would be sworn in to succeed him on Wednesday morning.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and David Alexander; Editing By Doina Chiacu)

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