WASHINGTON – 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 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. The vote coincided with 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."
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.
Despite Gates' popularity with lawmakers, 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 told Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the incoming chairman of the committee, that 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."