WASHINGTON - A deeply divided Senate voted on Tuesday to confirm Republican Chuck Hagel to be the nation's next defense secretary. It handed 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 came 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 today.
The president 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 opposed their onetime colleague, casting him as unqualified, hostile toward Israel and soft on Iran.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., clashed with his onetime friend over his opposition to President George W. Bush's decision to send an extra 30,000 troops to Iraq in 2007 when the war seemed in danger of being lost. Hagel, who voted to authorize military force in Iraq, later opposed the conflict, comparing it to Vietnam and arguing that it shifted the focus from Afghanistan.
McCain said several GOP lawmakers also had "a lot of ill will" toward the moderate Republican for his criticism of Bush and his backing for Democratic candidates.
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 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.
"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.
Not so, said Democratic Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who pointed out that Hagel now has the title and the fight is history.
How Arizona's senators voted on the nomination of Chuck Hagel to become the nation's defense secretary:
• Sen. John McCain, R, no
• Sen. Jeff Flake, R, no