The Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to confirm Robert Gates as defense secretary, with Democrats and Republicans portraying him as the man who will help overhaul President Bush’s Iraq policies.
The 95-2 vote was a victory of sorts for Bush, who named Gates to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld at the Pentagon on Nov. 8, a day after voters gave Democrats control of Congress for next year.
Even so, much of Gates’ support stemmed from his pledges to consider new options in Iraq. Overshadowing the vote was the release of an independent study lambasting Bush’s approach to the war, increasing pressure on the White House to change course.
"I am confident that his leadership and capabilities will help our country meet its current military challenges and prepare for emerging threats of the 21st century," Bush said in a statement after the Senate vote.
He said Gates had shown during his confirmation hearing this week before the Senate Armed Services Committee that he is "an experienced, qualified, and thoughtful man who is well respected by members of both parties and is committed to winning the war on terror."
Overall, 52 Republicans, 42 Democrats and one independent voted for Gates. Three lawmakers — Sens. Joseph Biden, D-Del., Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C. — did not vote.
Two Bush allies, Sens. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Jim Bunning, R-Ky., voted against Gates, citing his criticism of the war and his view that the U.S. should engage Iran as part of a solution.
"Mr. Gates has repeatedly criticized our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan without providing any viable solutions to the problems our troops currently face," Bunning said. "We need a secretary of defense to think forward with solutions and not backward on history we cannot change."
Santorum, who lost his re-election bid last month, mocked the idea of engaging dictators and talked at length of the evils of "radical Islamic fascism." When it comes to reaching out to Iran to discuss the security of Iraq, Santorum said of Gates, "I think he is in error."
The White House said Gates would be sworn in Dec. 18. Explaining the delay, spokeswoman Dana Perino said Gates had commitments he had to fulfill at Texas A&M University, where he is the president. Bush called Gates with congratulations.
Gates said at the Senate hearing he did not think the U.S. was winning the war and that all options for changing the administration’s approach must remain on the table.
"It seems to me that the United States is going to have to have some kind of presence in Iraq for a long time … but it could be with a dramatically smaller number of U.S. forces than are there today," Gates testified.
The committee voted 24-0 to support Gates to succeed Rumsfeld, who became a symbol of the unpopular war and often sparred with Democrats.
Committee Democrats said they decided to endorse Gates because of his frank assessment of the Iraq war and his openness to change. Many of them said they saw the Iraq Study Group’s report and the change in leadership at the Defense Department as the necessary impetus for a different approach to Iraq.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said he thought Gates "recognized the high price that our troops are paying for the current policy."
GOP Senate leaders also hailed the confirmation.
"The position of secretary of defense is more important than ever, and I believe the President has made an outstanding choice," said Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Gates’ swift approval contrasted with his experience 15 years ago when he was picked to head the CIA.
In 1991, 31 Democrats voted against confirming Gates, citing charges he had pressured intelligence analysts to develop conclusions that fit President Reagan’s policies and turned a blind eye to the Iran-Contra scandal — when arms were sold to the Iranians and the cash used to supply the Nicaraguan Contra rebels.
Twelve of the senators who rejected Gates 15 years ago remain in the Senate today, including Biden, Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
Despite Gates’ popularity with lawmakers during this confirmation process, he has not said what should be done in Iraq, promising to consult first with military commanders.
Gates won political points with Democrats when he said he did not think the U.S. was winning in Iraq. That response appeared to contradict Bush, who said at an Oct. 25 news conference, "Absolutely, we’re winning."
Gates later said he believes the U.S. is neither winning nor losing "at this point."
Levin said Wednesday he was pleased that Gates agreed with Democrats that "only a political settlement by the Iraqis can end the violence in Iraq and that the military force that we have there cannot do that for the Iraqis."