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Senate relents, clears Hagel in close vote

| Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013, 8:24 p.m.

WASHINGTON — A deeply divided Senate voted on Tuesday to confirm Republican Chuck Hagel to be the nation's next Defense secretary, handing President Obama's pick the top Pentagon job just days before billions of dollars in automatic, across-the-board budget cuts hit the military.

The vote was 58-41, with four Republicans joining the Democrats in backing the contentious choice. Hagel's only GOP support came from former colleagues Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Dick Shelby of Alabama and Mike Johanns of Nebraska — all three had announced their support earlier — and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

The vote occurred just hours after Republicans dropped their unprecedented delay of a Pentagon choice and allowed the nomination to move forward on a 71-27 vote.

Hagel, 66, a former two-term Nebraska senator and twice-wounded Vietnam combat veteran, succeeds Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Hagel is expected to be sworn in at the Pentagon on Wednesday.

Obama welcomed the bipartisan Senate vote, although 41 Republicans op-posed his nominee, and said in a statement that “we will have the Defense secretary our nation needs and the leader our troops deserve.”

The looked past the divisions and 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.”

Republicans had opposed their onetime colleague, casting him as unqualified for the job, hostile toward Israel and soft on Iran. The objections remained strong well after the vote.

“I continue to have serious questions about whether Chuck Hagel is up to the job of being our secretary of Defense,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in a statement. “I hope, for the sake of our own national security, he exceeds expectations.”

Hagel joins Obama's retooled second-term, national security team of 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 deciding on troop levels in Afghanistan as the United States winds down its combat presence and dealing with $46 billion in budget cuts set to kick in on Friday. He also will have to work with lawmakers who spent weeks vilifying him.

Republicans insisted that Hagel was battered and bloodied after their repeated attacks during the protracted political fight.

“He will take office with the weakest support of any Defense secretary in modern history, which will make him less effective on his job,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate GOP's No. 2 Republican.

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