WASHINGTON — With only hours to go before the U.S. Senate was slated to vote on the nomination of Chuck Hagel to serve as Secretary of Defense, Sen. Michael Bennet announced he would vote for the embattled nominee.
“Senator Bennet has received assurances that Senator Hagel would stand for Israel and our allies, work to strengthen Israel’s security, and is committeed to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Adam Bozzi, a spokesman for the Colorado Democrat, told KDVR Tuesday.
Bennet’s statement came five hours before the Senate voted 58-41 to confirm Hagel as Defense Secretary.
Bennet’s vote for President Obama’s choice to head the Pentagon was not a surprise; his spokesman had said two weeks ago he was likely to do so and voted to invoke cloture to block a Republican filibuster.
Yet Bennet, the new chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was among the few Democratic senators who had not declared support for Hagel already. It came seven weeks after Obama selected the former Republican senator from Nebraska as his nominee for the top defense post.
Sen. Mark Udall announced he would vote for Hagel shortly after his eight-hour confirmation hearing Jan. 31 before the Senate Armed Services Committee. On Tuesday, the Colorado Democrat re-iterated his support for Hagel because of his backing for for military readiness, gay and lesbian service members, and preventing cyber warfare. “I know he will ensure that our military remains the best in the world, see that all members and their families are treated equally, and bolster our cybersecurity,” Udall said.
In the run up to the vote, defense interest groups had run ads in Colorado urging Udall and Bennet to oppose Hagel, who had voted against adding more U.S. troops to the Iraq war in 2007 and made statements critical of Israel.
Their arguments did not convince the two Colorado Democrats or any senators who caucus with the Democrats, as all 54 present voted to confirm Hagel. Only four Republicans voted for their former colleague: Senators Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Richard Shelby of Alabama, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he expected the vote to break along party lines. “I’m not surprised. We would have been happy with more Republican support, but I was pleased that Republicans voted to break (a filibuster attempt),” he told reporters afterwards. Eighteen Republicans voted Tuesday to limit debate on Hagel’s nomination.
Before and after the vote, Republicans warned that Hagel will preside over massive cuts to the defense industry. “I am friends with Senator Hagel, but I am not here to dismantle our military and let us become a second-rate power,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said in an interview afterwards. Republican senators also said he was insufficiently committed to deterring Iran from acquiring or building a nuclear weapon.
Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, will become the first enlisted man to serve as Secretary of the Department of Defense. He replaces Leon Panetta, who had held the position since July 2011.