Hagel confirmed as next US secretary of defence

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US Senate finally confirmed Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defence on Tuesday, ending an acrimonious nominations process and handing President Barack Obama a boost as he fills his second-term cabinet.

After Mr Hagel's bruising confirmation hearing and a 10-day delay thrown up by Republicans, Senators voted 58-41 to confirm the former Republican senator and decorated Vietnam War veteran to replace outgoing Pentagon chief Leon Panetta.

Mr Hagel, 66, is likely to be sworn in on Wednesday.

Four Republicans - surprisingly including tea party-backed Senator Rand Paul - joined the majority Democrats in approving Mr Hagel, compared with the 18 Republicans who had voted earlier in the day to overcome the blocking tactics and allow a full vote.

In an early reaction from the White House, press secretary Jay Carney said on Twitter that the confirmation is "great news for our men & women in uniform." The nomination was held up by several Republicans' demands for information on Mr Hagel's finances and transcripts of speeches that he gave to international organisations.

But some of his strongest critics, including Republican Senators Bob Corker, Lindsey Graham and John McCain, agreed to allow an up-or-down floor vote, even though all three eventually voted against Mr Hagel's confirmation.

The outcome ended a politically charged saga that saw Mr Hagel unsettled in congressional testimony when critics savaged his record on issues related to the Middle East.

He also survived a tense committee vote that saw him subjected to such harsh comments that fellow Vietnam veteran Mr McCain warned fellow Republicans that they should not impugn the patriotism of "an honourable man." Senate majority leader Harry Reid sounded relieved, but got in a few more digs at his opponents.

"Senator Hagel is the first nominee for secretary of defence to be filibustered in the history of the United States," Mr Reid said.

"Politically motivated delays send a terrible signal to our allies and to the world," as well as to US troops serving in Afghanistan, Mr Reid said. "For the sake of national security, it's time to set aside this partisanship." Mr Carl Levin, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which had itself only approved Mr Hagel after a tense party-line vote, said it was time to "end this uncertainty about this position." "We need a secretary of defence," Mr Levin said.

He and Mr Reid argued that the delay could harm US military readiness and credibility at a time of tension in the Middle East, concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions, and North Korea's recent atomic test.

Compounding the problem is US$85 billion (S$105.3 billion) in across-the-board spending cuts set to kick-in on Friday, a measure that would ravage many military programs and lead to furloughs of the Defense Department's 800,000 civilian workers.

Despite Mr Hagel's impressive Vietnam War record, some Republicans insist his previous allegedly dovish position on Iran and supposedly lukewarm support for US-ally Israel disqualify him to be defence chief.

Senator Dan Coats warned America's implicit threat to take military action against Iran if it continues to seek nuclear weapons "will have virtually zero credibility if Senator Hagel becomes secretary of defence." Although Mr Hagel had a mostly conservative record as a senator, his Republican colleagues have never forgiven him for his outspoken criticism of president George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq war.

He called the administration's effort at the time "beyond pitiful" and when Mr Bush planned a surge of additional troops in 2006, Mr Hagel said it would be "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam."

Mr Hagel's confirmation will mark a double victory for Mr Obama, whose pick for Treasury secretary, Jack Lew, passed the Senate Finance Committee despite some qualms about his reputation as a doctrinaire Democrat with ties to Wall Street.

The committee voted 19 to 5 in favour of Lew, Mr Obama's former chief of staff and a budget director for then-president Bill Clinton.