WASHINGTON – Chuck Hagel is expected to be sworn in as U.S. defense secretary Wednesday, battered politically by a confirmation fight even as he faces challenges from Pentagon budget cuts to withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
Hagel, 66, won Senate approval on a 58-41 vote Tuesday after months of Republican opposition that began even before President Barack Obama nominated him for the job. While Obama said that Hagel won “bipartisan confirmation,” only four Republicans joined 52 Democrats and two independents to back him.
“He will take office with the weakest support of any defense secretary in modern history, which will make him less effective in his job,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said during debate Tuesday.
Weeks of criticism over Hagel’s past positions — from his opposition to the troop surge in Iraq in 2007 to his comments on the influence of what he once called the “Jewish lobby” — will fade as Hagel tackles the automatic defense spending cuts of $45 billion over seven months that are set to begin, according to former Defense Secretary William Cohen.
“He’ll have his hands full,” Cohen said. In addition to working out of the Pentagon to steep himself in the issues he’ll face, Hagel has been visiting other lawmakers, he said. “Relations are important, and he has been going up to repair the damage done during the confirmation hearing,” he said.
Hagel must also manage the military and civilian leadership of the Pentagon in an era when defense budgets are likely to shrink, regardless of whether the across-the-board cuts called sequestration stay in place, Cohen said. All that “will create a lot of anxiety and probably some objections” from within the military services, he said.
Hagel’s halting performance in his Jan. 31 confirmation hearing, during which he clashed over the Iraq surge with Arizona Sen. John McCain and stumbled over U.S. policy toward Iran’s nuclear program, may have taken a toll on his image.
But Hagel probably can recover, said Aaron David Miller, vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The hearings showed Hagel’s capacity to survive “an idiosyncratic process” that was mostly about a split between Republicans in Congress and the Obama administration on foreign policy matters, he said.