WASHINGTON (AP) _ Fifteen years after many Democrats told him he couldn't be trusted to lead the CIA, senators of both parties are ushering Robert Gates into an arguably tougher job _ taking the helm of the U.S. war effort in Iraq.
In a rare show of bipartisanship, the Senate voted 95-2 on Wednesday to confirm Gates as the next defense secretary. Republicans and Democrats alike hailed him as a thoughtful and experienced bureaucrat who could help figure out what the United States should do next in a conflict that has become widely unpopular.
Of the 44 Democrats in the Senate, 42 supported Gates with the other two Democrats not voting.
The swift approval was in stark contrast to Gates' 1991 confirmation vote to become CIA chief. Citing charges he had distorted intelligence for political purposes and turned a blind eye to the Iran-Contra scandal, 31 Democrats rejected Gates.
Twelve of those senators remain in the Senate today and none of them voted against Gates. One of them, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., did not vote.
Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, one of the Democrats who voted against Gates in 1991, he approved his nomination to head the Pentagon "because he assured the committee that he would be an independent thinker and give candid and frank advice to the president about a way forward in Iraq."
The 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.
But much of Gates' support stemmed from his pledges to consider new options in Iraq. The vote was overshadowed 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."
Overall, 52 Republicans, 42 Democrats and one independent voted for Gates. Three senators _ Biden, 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 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.
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 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."