The U.S. Senate confirmed former Sen. Chuck Hagel as defense secretary on Tuesday following assurances that he would work on behalf of LGBT military families and controversy over his anti-gay past.
Senators approved the Nebraska Republican’s nomination by a 58-41 vote late in the afternoon. That confirmation vote took place more than four hours after the Senate invoked cloture to end debate on his nomination by a vote of 71-27.
In a statement, President Obama commended the Senate for confirming Hagel on a bipartisan vote — along it was the first time ever a defense secretary nominee was filibustered — and called the new Pentagon chief “the leader our troops deserve.”
“I will be counting on Chuck’s judgment and counsel as we end the war in Afghanistan, bring our troops home, stay ready to meet the threats of our time and keep our military the finest fighting force in the world,” Obama said. “Most of all, I am grateful to Chuck 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.”
Last week, a previous vote in the Senate to proceed with the Hagel confirmation was 58-40, which was short of the 60-vote threshold needed to end a filibuster and move on to confirmation. Hagel was confirmed on Tuesday as a result of Republicans changing their votes on whether to end debate on the nomination.
Among those casting a vote in favor of Hagel was lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who previously told Washington Blade she had a “very good conversation” with him and would support his nomination. Last month, Baldwin said she had “tough questions” about his view of the post-“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military.
Hagel’s nomination was controversial in the LGBT community because of remarks he made in 1998, when he said the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, Jim Hormel, shouldn’t be confirmed to the post because he’s “openly aggressively gay.” Hagel also had a dismal voting record on LGBT issues during his tenure in the U.S. Senate. Just prior to his nomination as defense secretary, Hagel apologized for the anti-gay remarks.
Since being nominated for the position of defense secretary, Hagel has expressed a commitment to gay service members, saying he supports “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and pledged as part of testimony before the Senate to move “expeditiously” to enact certain benefits for troops with same-sex partners that are allowed despite the Defense of Marriage Act.
Earlier this month, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced most of these benefits would be enacted —and set a goal for implementing them by Aug. 31, but no later than Oct. 1. Hagel will be responsible for seeing through their implementing them in addition to other benefits — such as health and pension benefits — that may be awarded to gay troops with same-sex partners if the Supreme Court strikes down DOMA.
Allyson Robinson, executive director of the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN, praised the Senate for confirming Hagel, but urged him to go further in his commitment to LGBT troops by instituting non-discrimination protections for gay service members.
“It has been reassuring to see Sen. Hagel show the kind of clear, unambiguous leadership in support of our service members and their families he has demonstrated in recent months,” Robinson said. “Now he has the opportunity to turn his commitments into action, and we look forward to working with him to ensure our military embodies the same values of fairness and equality it protects.”
Currently, no recourse exists for gay service members outside of their chain of command if they feel they’ve experienced discrimination based on their sexual orientation.
However, in response to requests to implement an explicit non-discrimination policy, Pentagon officials reiterate the current policy to treat everyone in the military with fairness.
OutServe-SLDN had previously called on President Obama to issue an executive order instituting a non-discrimination policy for LGBT service members.
Hagel’s confirmation was a rocky road made more so because of Republican opposition to his nomination. Senators like James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) attempted to filibuster his nomination on the basis of positions he’s taken on Iran and Israel, including his decision not to sign a 2000 letter by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
The Log Cabin Republicans ran full-page ads opposing Hagel in The Washington Post and The New York Times — expressing similar concerns about his positions on Iran and Israel as well as concern over anti-gay remarks made against Hormel.
Gregory Angelo, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, said upon news of Hagel’s confirmation he’ll be watching the defense secretary to see if the repudiation of his previous anti-gay comments and commitment to LGBT military families is genuine.
“It is up to Secretary Hagel to turn his recent words into actions,” Angelo said. “We will be watching to make sure his change of heart is sincere and look forward to working with him on the completion of the implementation of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal.”
NOTE: This article has been updated to include a statement from President Obama.