Yesterday the Senate voted 58-41 to confirm former republican Senator Chuck Hagel to be the 24th Secretary of Defense.  Hagel was nominated by the president in early January and was cleared by the Senate Armed Services Committee February 12.

Hagel, the first former enlisted person and first Vietnam veteran to become Secretary of Defense, took the oath of office this morning in a private ceremony at the Pentagon. 

President Obama applauded Hagel’s confirmation saying “we will have the defense secretary our nation needs and the leader our troops deserve.” 

The opposition to Hagel was the strongest experienced by a defense secretary nominee since Sen. John Tower’s (R-TX) failed nomination in 1989.  Hagel underwent forceful questioning by Senate Republicans over his qualifications and record.  Some had threatened an extensive filibuster to thwart his confirmation.  However, in the end the Senate voted 71-27 to end debate and proceed to the final vote.  Four Republicans—Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), fellow Nebraskan Sen. Mike Johanns (R-NB), and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)—joined 52 Democrats and two Independents in voting to confirm Hagel.

The challenges facing Hagel are daunting and will test his leadership skills early.  An immediate across-the-board budget cut of $46 billion is set to kick in on March 1 and another $400 billion reduction could occur over the next eight years if an alternative to sequestration is not achieved.  In addition, American troops are in the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan by 2014, terrorist groups in Africa are increasing in strength and activity, and the threat of a nuclear Iran remains a very serious concern.