Hagel confirmed as Obama battles on

Updated: 2013-02-27 12:15

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)

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Hagel confirmed as Obama battles on

As President Barack Obama fought Republicans in the Congress to avoid automatic budget cuts set to start on March 1, he won a seven-week-long battle for his defense secretary nominee.

The US Senate voted on Tuesday to confirm Chuck Hagel, a former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska, as the 24th secretary of defense.

Hagel was approved 58 to 41, just hours aHer a 71-27 vote in the Senate to end the frst-ever filibuster of a defense nominee, announced by Obama on Jan 7.

A decorated Vietnam veteran and described by Obama as "the leader that our troops deserve",

Hagel, 66, had drawn sharp criticism from many Republicans and some Democrats over his past record. The Republicans accused him of being soH on Iran and

unfriendly to Israel, while some Democrats still recalled his opposition to appointing an openly gay man as US ambassador to Luxembourg in the 1990s. Hagel later apologized for making an insensitive comment.

Hagel's confi rmation came at a critical moment in the looming budget crisis if no deal is reached between Obama and the congressional Republicans ahead of March 1 on automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, the defense budget will be cut by as much as 13 percent during the current fiscal year. The Department of Defense already announced that it plans to furlough the majority of its 800,000 civilian employees to meet a shortfall of some $46 billion.

Arizona Senator John McCain, one of the strongest opponents of Hagel's nomination,

was among those who stopped blocking a vote on Tuesday, although he still voted against Hagel's confirmation.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham was another of the 15 Republican senators who called on Obama last Iursday to withdraw Hagel's nomination, calling him "not the right candidate" to head the Pentagon.

While Hagel could assume his new duty as soon as Wednesday, the delay in confirmation has meant departing

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta staying in the job for an additional two weeks. Despite the rough ride, the confirmation has been widely regarded a victory for Obama amid divided party politics in Washington, especially between the White House and congressional Republicans.

Also on Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee voted 19-5 to approve Jack Lew, Obama's nominee for secretary of treasury, setting the stage for a full Senate vote, expected in the coming days.

Lew's confirmation is expected to be much smoother than Hagel despite Republicans' reservations and concern about his record working for Citigroup from 2006 to 2008.

The former chief of staJ and budget director for Obama will face a tough budget battle against congressional Republicans. Both the White House and Republicans have opposed $85 billion budget cuts set to begin on Friday, but they disagree sharply in their approach.

Writing in the National Interest, Amitai Etzioni, a professor of international relations at the George Washington University, described Hagel as a China dove.

"One can assume that he will help President Obama rein in those in the Pentagon who see China as a threatening adversary and are making moves that, however inadvertently, slide the United States toward a new cold, if not shooting, war with China," Etzioni said.

During the NATO summit in Chicago last May, Hagel said China is going to emerge and grow.

"It should. We should welcome that. They're going to be competitors. Iey are now, as are India, Brazil and other nations. Iat's OKay," he said.

Recognizing the huge challenges China faces in areas such as poverty reduction, job creation, resources and transparency, Hagel praised the country's progress.

"They are a great power today, and they are going to continue to be a great power, and that's okay," he said. "But we shouldn't cower in the wake of that, or we shouldn't be concerned that they're going to take our place in the world."

Contact the writer at chenweihua@chinadailyusa.com