Chuck Hagel will be secretary of Defense. What did GOP opposition accomplish?

The Senate approves former Sen. Chuck Hagel as Defense secretary after weeks of Republican opposition. Hagel emerges politically weaker as he prepares to fight pending budget cuts.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month. A deeply divided Senate is moving toward a vote on President Obama’s contentious choice.

The embattled Chuck Hagel will be America’s next secretary of Defense, after all.

Following weeks of bitter partisan fighting over Mr. Hagel’s nomination for the Pentagon post, he won Senate confirmation with surprising ease, passing a key Tuesday cloture vote by 71 to 27. Among those voting “yea” were Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona – two lawmakers who’d battered Hagel, a former GOP senator from Nebraska, over his past statements on Israel, Iran, Libya, and various other national security issues.

The final vote on Hagel's confirmation came Tuesday evening, with the Senate voting 58 to 41. Four Republicans backed Hagel, but Graham and McCain voted "no."

So what did the GOP opposition to Hagel produce? If nothing else, it’s likely to prevent the administration from pointing to Hagel as evidence that President Obama’s Cabinet is bipartisan. It’s possible that was one reason Obama chose Hagel in the first place, but the fierce GOP opposition to his nomination made clear that his former colleagues consider him a turncoat due to his criticism of the Bush-era troop surge in Iraq, and other issues. Democrat John Kerry’s path to confirmation as secretary of State was all flowers and lollipops by comparison.

And Hagel emerges politically weaker. His fumbling answers during his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing surely caught the notice of all the high-ranking generals and admirals he’ll be dealing with. To them, he’ll have to prove he’s got the stuff to handle a very tough job at a time when sequester cuts are about to whack their budgets. Plus, he’ll have to come back and appear before the very same Armed Services panel for further budget and authorization hearings.

“Hagel has been stripped of the patina of competence and will go into his job with zero credibility even on his own side,” wrote Washington Post "Right Turn" blogger Jennifer Rubin, who’s helped lead the rhetorical charge against Hagel’s nomination.

But the fact is the Republican opposition lost. Hagel gets the big paneled office on the Pentagon’s outside E ring. And the opposition lost because in the end it was not cohesive. Some lawmakers truly wished to prevent Hagel from getting the job, and appeared willing to go to the barricades to that end. Others did not want to continue what was in essence a filibuster of the nomination.

Eighteen Republicans voted for cloture. If 12 of these GOP Senators had gone the other way Hagel would have been blocked and remained in nominee limbo, short of the 60 votes needed to proceed to a final, majority-rules vote on the nomination.

McCain, for instance, voted for cloture despite having called Hagel “unqualified” for the Senate post.

“Hard to overstate the courage of the Senate Republicans who delayed Chuck Hagel’s confirmation by a few days. Think Thermopylae,” tweeted National Review Online news editor Daniel Foster, sarcastically.

McCain and others weren’t willing to continue to block Hagel in large part because the Senate has traditionally given presidents deference in regards to picking cabinet members. No secretary of Defense nominee has ever previously been filibustered. Now that Hagel has been semi-kind-of-filibustered, will that precedent continue to hold? The next Republican president will have to get his picks past Democratic senators, after all. In that sense the cabinet confirmation battles may be just beginning.

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