WASHINGTON (AP) — Chuck Hagel takes charge at the Defense Department with deep budget cuts looming and Republican opponents still doubtful that he’s up to the job.
Hagel is expected to be sworn in today and is likely to address the staff in his first day as defense secretary. The bitter, seven-week fight over his nomination ended Tuesday as a deeply divided Senate voted 58-41 to confirm him. Just four Republicans joined Democrats in backing the former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska and twice-wounded Vietnam combat veteran.
“I am honored that President Obama and the Senate have entrusted me to serve our nation once again,” Hagel said in a statement. “I can think of no greater privilege than leading the brave, dedicated men and women of the Department of Defense as they perform vital missions around the globe.”
Hagel promised to work closely with Congress, but he faces lingering reservations about his ability to handle the responsibilities. Shortly after the vote, Sen. Lindsey Graham said he still has serious questions about Hagel and his qualifications.
“I hope, for the sake of our own national security, he exceeds expectations,” said the South Carolina Republican.
The top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, said Hagel’s record on Israel, Iran, defense spending and nuclear weapons “demonstrate, in my view, a profound and troubling lack of judgment on many of the critical issues he will now be confronted with as secretary of defense.”
But Inhofe promised to work with Hagel to avoid the $46 billion in automatic, across-the-board budget cuts that hit the Pentagon on Friday.
Obama alluded to the need for cooperation in his statement welcoming the vote.
The president said he was grateful to Hagel “for reminding us that when it comes to our national defense, we are not Democrats or Republicans, we are Americans, and our greatest responsibility is the security of the American people.”
Hagel joins Obama’s retooled national security team, including Secretary of State John Kerry and CIA Director-designate John Brennan, at a time of uncertainty for a military emerging from two wars and fighting worldwide terrorism with smaller, deficit-driven budgets.
Among his daunting challenges are dealing with the budget cuts and deciding on troop levels in Afghanistan as the United States winds down its combat presence. He also will have to work with lawmakers who spent weeks vilifying him.