WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel’s painful, prolonged and divisive nomination battle in the Senate finally ended Tuesday, but it is only a prelude to the national-security challenges that will greet him on his first day of work at the Pentagon.
Hagel is scheduled to be sworn in today as secretary of defense after he scraped together enough support to win Senate confirmation by a 58 to 41 vote. Until the very end, he had to overcome fierce opposition from pro-Israel groups and a filibuster led by fellow Republicans who neither forgot nor forgave his withering criticism of the George W. Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq.
The Vietnam combat veteran will have less than 48 hours to move into his new office in the outer ring of the Pentagon before he probably will have to confront an even tougher challenge: slashing $46 billion in military spending — about 9 percent of the defense budget — by the end of September.
Unless President Barack Obama and Congress can conjure a last-minute deal, automatic budget cuts will start to take effect Friday. Most government agencies will be affected, but the Pentagon will take the biggest hit.
Hagel, a former two-term senator from Nebraska, will be forced to make some snap decisions about which military programs to preserve and which to sacrifice. Already, defense officials have said they may have to furlough up to 800,000 civilians, drastically scale back training and keep ships in port, including an aircraft carrier strike group that was bound for the Persian Gulf.
“He’ll have to go through and make decisions on each and every one of those," said William Cohen, a Republican who served as defense secretary in the Clinton administration. “I assume he’s been drinking from the fire hose already."
On a personal level, Hagel will also have to quickly put aside any bruised feelings from an unusually bitter confirmation process. His foremost political task will be to sit down with Republican lawmakers who denounced his candidacy and persuade them to reach a compromise with Democrats to restore the Pentagon’s budget.
In a statement after the vote, Hagel said he was honored and promised to “work closely with Congress to ensure that we maintain the strongest military in the world."
But Republicans who opposed Hagel gave little indication that they would give him a break.
“He will take office with the weakest support of any defense secretary in modern history, which will make him less effective in his job," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican in the chamber.
Pentagon officials already had to face questions about whether their new boss was a wounded duck.
“He understands the importance of healthy debate," Pentagon press secretary George Little said. “And I think he is going to come in with the philosophy that he is going to be a team player inside this building, and that will extend to the United States Congress."