Laura Litvan
Bloomberg News

The Senate confirmed Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, after weeks of partisan acrimony over President Barack Obama’s choice to head the Pentagon in a time of budget-cutting and evolving threats from terrorism to cyber warfare.

The nomination was approved on a 58-41 vote hours after the Senate acted to limit debate, cutting off the first filibuster against a nominee for defense secretary. Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska and a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, will replace retiring Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Hagel, 66, will become the Pentagon’s leader as across-the- board spending cuts called sequestration are set to take $46 billion from military budgets over seven months and $500 billion over a decade, starting March 1, unless Obama and Congress agree on an alternative.

Republicans, who have criticized Hagel for his past positions — from his opposition to the troop surge during the Iraq war to his comments on the influence of what he once called the “Jewish lobby” — were readying for new fights with Hagel as the steward of the Pentagon’s diminishing funds.

“There are those of us who seek to cut waste, fraud, and abuse from the Department of Defense,” Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, said this month during floor debate. “Senator Hagel seeks something else entirely — to cut military capabilities that serve as tools to ensure our continued engagement through the world in support of America’s interests and those of our allies.”

Former Secretaries

Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democratic leader, said Hagel’s abilities are widely recognized. Hagel has been endorsed by 13 former secretaries of defense, state, and national security advisers of both parties, he pointed out.

“Men who have had that responsibility trust Chuck Hagel, and so do I,” Durbin said today.

Republicans said Hagel has been weakened by the confirmation process. No defense secretary has been confirmed with more than 11 votes in opposition, said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican leader.

“He will take office with the weakest support of any defense secretary in modern history, which will make him less effective in his job,” Cornyn said.

In announcing Hagel as his nominee on Jan. 7, Obama called the Vietnam veteran “the leader our troops deserve” and said he will be able to manage the “tough fiscal choices” necessary amid shrinking budgets.

’Unvarnished Advice’

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said Hagel’s confirmation would mark the first time the Defense Department would be led by a Vietnam veteran who remained an enlisted man throughout his military career. Hagel’s background provides “invaluable experience” at a time of intense budget pressures and continuing combat operations overseas, Levin said.

“The president needs to have a secretary of defense in whom he has trust, who will give him unvarnished advice, a person of integrity, and one who has a personal understanding of the consequences of decisions relative to the use of military force,” Levin said in floor debate. “Senator Hagel certainly has those critically important qualifications and he is well qualified to lead the Department of Defense.”

The action today came almost two weeks after Republicans blocked Hagel’s confirmation on Feb. 14, saying they needed time to get more information. That initial motion to end debate failed, 58-40, with 60 votes needed. Today, the so-called cloture motion was approved, 71-27.

Filibuster Threat

Hagel’s nomination marked only the third time that a Cabinet nominee required 60 votes to overcome a filibuster on the Senate floor, according to Betty Koed, the chamber’s associate historian. They were President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 pick for Commerce Secretary, C. William Verity, and President George W. Bush’s 2006 choice of Dirk Kempthorne to be Interior Secretary. Both overcame the higher vote threshold to win confirmation.

In today’s key vote to limit debate, 18 Republicans voted with Democrats. Among them were McCain, Richard Shelby of Alabama, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

A number of Republicans who opposed Hagel said they were hesitant to filibuster against a president’s choice for defense secretary because of the precedent it would set.

Opposition to Hagel, which included advertisements on cable television, began even before Obama announced his selection. The anti-Hagel campaign was led by Republicans outside of Congress such as William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard magazine.

Iraq Surge

Kristol and McCain are among Republicans who favor a more aggressive military stance abroad and who broke with Hagel when he opposed Bush’s decision to send a surge of 30,000 troops to bolster the combat effort in Iraq in 2007.

Opposition to the surge made Hagel an ally of then-Senator Obama, who won election to the chamber in 2004 as an opponent of the war. The two men developed a camaraderie traveling together to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008.

McCain, who had long been a friend of the fellow Vietnam veteran, repeatedly pressed Hagel at his confirmation hearing last month to say that he had been wrong about the surge. Hagel refused McCain’s demands for a yes-or-no answer.

In a sign of continuing resistance among Republican lawmakers, 15 of the party’s senators called on Obama last week to withdraw Hagel’s nomination. Among those signing the letter were Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, and five other members of the panel.