WASHINGTON -- Chuck Hagel takes charge at the Defense Department with deep budget cuts looming and Republican opponents still doubtful that he's up to the job.
Hagel is expected to be sworn in Wednesday and is likely to address the staff in his first day as defense secretary. The bitter, seven-week fight over his nomination ended Tuesday as a deeply divided Senate voted 58-41 to confirm him. Just four Republicans joined Democrats in backing the former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska and twice-wounded Vietnam combat veteran.
"I am honored that President Obama and the Senate have entrusted me to serve our nation once again," Hagel said in a statement. "I can think of no greater privilege than leading the brave, dedicated men and women of the Department of Defense as they perform vital missions around the globe."
Hagel promised to work closely with Congress, but he faces lingering reservations about his ability to handle the responsibilities. Shortly after the vote, Sen. Lindsey Graham said he still has serious questions about Hagel and his qualifications.
"I hope, for the sake of our own national security, he exceeds expectations," said the South Carolina Republican.
U.S. Senate panel backs Lew: The Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday approved President Barack Obama's choice of Jacob Lew to be Treasury secretary and sent the nomination to the full Senate. Lew would succeed Timothy Geithner, who completed a tumultuous four-year term in which he helped lead the administration's response to the financial crisis and recession. The committee approved Lew's nomination, 19-5. The timing of a Senate vote is unclear.
To replace Jackson Jr.: The newly-elected Democratic nominee to replace disgraced former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. vowed to become a leader in the fight for federal gun control and directly challenged the National Rifle Association in her victory speech. But it remains to be seen if Robin Kelly's primary win Tuesday night in the Chicago-area district, aided by a $2 million ad campaign funded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's super PAC, would fuel the national debate.
Continues support for low rates: Ben Bernanke sent a message Tuesday to Congress: The Federal Reserve's low-interest-rate policies are giving crucial support to an economy still burdened by high unemployment. The Fed chairman acknowledged the risks of keeping rates low indefinitely. But he expressed confidence that such risks pose little threat now. Delivering the Fed's semiannual monetary report to Congress, Bernanke sought to minimize concerns that the central bank's easy-money policies might cause runaway inflation later or dangerous bubbles in assets like stocks. He sought to reassure sometimes-skeptical senators that the Fed is monitoring potential threats and can defuse them before they hurt the economy.
Americans are more confident: Americans are more confident in the economy than they have been in the past few months, but that doesn't mean they're willing to spend more money. Consumer confidence rebounded in February, reversing three straight months of declines, as Americans started getting used to the higher Social Security payroll tax, The Conference Board, a private research group said Tuesday. But the rosier outlook follows major companies from Burger King to Wal-Mart that have cautioned in recent weeks that Americans are pulling back on their spending as they try to stomach their smaller paychecks since the tax rose by 2 percentage points last month.
Vows to pay off DOE loan early: CEO Elon Musk of electric car maker Tesla Motors says his company plans to pay back an Energy Department loan in half the time required by the government. Musk said Tesla plans to pay off the $465 million federal loan in five years, rather than 10 years. Musk made the comment Tuesday at a summit on energy innovation, where he appeared on stage with Energy Secretary Steven Chu and defended the Obama administration's clean energy program. Noting the firestorm of criticism aimed at the Energy Department after the bankruptcy of solar company Solyndra, which received a $528 million federal loan, Musk said it was only fair that the administration wins praise for success stories such as Tesla.
Kerry talks with France: New U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has held his first official meeting with France's leadership amid increasing efforts by both countries to bolster opposition to Syria. Kerry met today with French President Francois Hollande in Paris, chatting in French on the front steps of the Elysee Palace.The war in Syria and Iran's nuclear program have topped the agenda of Kerry's tour of Europe and the Middle East. Officials in the United States and Europe said Tuesday the U.S. administration is nearing a decision on whether to provide non-lethal assistance to carefully vetted fighters opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.
Challenge of forming coalition government: A center-left group of parties appears to have the best shot at forming a coalition government in Italy after an inconclusive national election, but the challenge is steep and comes amid public anger over austerity measures. If Italian parties fail to form a governing coalition, new elections would be required, causing more uncertainty and a leadership vacuum, and that possibility rattled financial markets across Europe on Tuesday. Pier Luigi Bersani and his center-left allies appeared on Tuesday to have won a narrow victory in the lower house of parliament, while the Senate looks split with no party in control.
Cracking down on cantaloupe farmers: Federal regulators and state inspectors have issued warnings to cantaloupe farmers and packers that they will be testing melons for pathogens this year after two years of illness and recalls in the industry. A 2011 listeria outbreak traced to Colorado's Jensen Farms killed 33 people. Another outbreak last year was traced to salmonella at an Indiana cantaloupe packer. The warnings are being issued before this year's growing season to make sure this is a safe year for consumers.