The White House on Thursday afternoon flatly rejected a request made earlier in the day by 15 Republican senators to withdraw Chuck Hagel's nomination as defense secretary.
"This waste of time is not just meaningless political posturing—because we firmly believe that Sen. Hagel will be confirmed—but the waste of time is of consequence," White House press secretary Jay Carney said during Thursday's briefing. His comments came in response to a question about the Republicans' letter.
Carney added that Hagel, a Republican former Nebraska senator and two-time Purple Heart recipient, also received a huge boost on Thursday when Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama announced his support for Hagel's nomination.
"He's probably as good as we're going to get," Shelby told the Decatur Daily of Hagel, who now appears to have the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster—barring some last-minute surprise.
Carney also said at Thursday's briefing that several Republican senators over the weekend had voiced support during TV interviews for an up-or-down vote on Hagel, and that Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah had come out against a Republican filibuster.
"A clear majority in the U.S. Senate supports Sen. Hagel's confirmation, so today's actions ... run against both the majority will of the Senate and against our national interest," Carney said.
Carney stressed the pressing need for a new defense secretary, noting the 66,000 American troops currently in Afghanistan and this week's meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels.
The White House last week denounced Senate Republicans’ unprecedented filibuster of the Hagel nomination (no Cabinet-level post dealing with national security had ever before faced a successful one). In the Republicans' letter on Thursday, the lawmakers argued in effect that this was Hagel's own fault.
“It would be unprecedented for a Secretary of Defense to take office without a broad base of bipartisan support and confidence needed to serve effectively in this critical position,” the senators, led by John Cornyn of Texas, said in the message to Obama. "While we respect Senator Hagel’s honorable military service, in the interest of national security, we respectfully request that you withdraw his nomination."
In addition to Rubio and Cornyn, Republican Sens. James Inhofe, Lindsey Graham, Roger Wicker, David Vitter, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Pat Toomey, Dan Coats, Ron Johnson, James Risch, John Barrasso, Tom Coburn and Tim Scott signed the letter. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but it has flatly dismissed similar calls in the past, noting that Hagel has more than the 51 votes needed for confirmation.
In the letter the senators also denounced Hagel’s “erratic record and myriad conversions on key national security issues” and openly doubted “his basic competence to meet the substantial demand of the office.”
They charged that he “proclaimed the legitimacy of the current regime in Tehran.” During his wobbly confirmation hearing performance, Hagel had said America’s allies consider that regime “an elected, legitimate government, whether we agree or not.”
They also accused Hagel of showing “a seeming ambivalence about whether containment or prevention is the best approach, which gives us great concern.”
In the hearing, Hagel mistakenly broke with Obama’s policy of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons and suggested he favored “containment” instead. He tried to correct himself after being handed a note by an aide, but it was ultimately Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., who fixed the gaffe. Hagel also struggled to explain his past opposition to imposing unilateral economic sanctions on Iran.
“If Senator Hagel becomes Secretary of Defense, the military option will have near zero credibility,” the senators said in the letter. “This sends a dangerous message to the regime in Tehran, as it seeks to obtain the means necessary to harm both the United States and Israel.” (There’s another possibility: Maybe Hagel means war with Iran is actually more likely.)