Striking a blow at President Barack Obama, Senate Republicans on Thursday delayed former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as defense secretary in a mostly party-line procedural vote. Obama led a Democratic chorus denouncing the move as an unheard-of partisan play on national security.
In an online chat organized by Google, Obama scolded Republicans for their “unprecedented” move and said “there’s nothing in the Constitution” that says a Cabinet nominee requires 60 Senate votes to be confirmed.
“My expectation and hope is that Chuck Hagel, who richly deserves to get a vote on the floor of the Senate, will be confirmed as our defense secretary,” Obama said. “It’s just unfortunate that this kind of politics intrudes at a time when I am still presiding over a war in Afghanistan.”
Senators voted 58-40 to end debate on the former senator and decorated Vietnam War veteran’s nomination, falling short of the 60 needed to proceed to a final up-or-down vote. But even Republicans who oppose Hagel's nomination predicted he would win confirmation after a 10-day recess, insisting that lawmakers just needed more time to assess Obama's choice to succeed Leon Panetta at the Pentagon.
"This is not any attempt to kill this nomination," John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber's No. 2 Republican, said after the vote.
Cornyn, a fierce Hagel critic, said the vote was "premature" and the result of the White House rejecting "reasonable requests" for information, notably about the nominee's finances and past speeches. (The White House had moved a few hours earlier to defuse complaints tied to information about the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.)
Just four Republicans—Susan Collins of Maine, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mike Johanns from Hagel’s home state of Nebraska—joined the chamber’s Democrats and their two independent allies in supporting Hagel. Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch voted present.
"I regret that Republican senators, except for the valiant four, chose to filibuster the nomination," Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid scolded. Reid set up a fresh vote for Feb. 26.
Several GOP lawmakers who are all but certain to oppose Hagel’s confirmation, notably John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have said they will support ending debate after the recess that begins Friday.
“Sen. Hagel is going to be confirmed, if not tomorrow then when the Senate returns from recess,” an Obama administration official said in an email to reporters. "The drama has left the building," a Republican leadership aide told Yahoo News.
“We need a secretary of defense on the job,” Reid said after the vote, listing national security challenges from the war in Afghanistan to Iran’s nuclear program. “I hope nothing goes wrong, because we’ll rue the day.” The Nevada lawmaker said he would telephone Hagel to tell him “I’m sorry this has happened” and promise “we’re not going to give up on you.”
Cornyn countered that “we do have a secretary of defense,” Panetta, who has indicated he will stay on until his successor is confirmed.
Reid accused Republicans of filibustering a key national security nominee for the “first time in the history of our country.”
While it was the first successful filibuster of a Cabinet-level national security nominee, Democrats in 2005 filibustered the nomination of John Bolton to be Ambassador to the United Nations. Then-President George W. Bush installed him with a recess appointment. When Democrats opposed Bolton’s nomination again in late 2006, the controversial diplomat announced he would step down rather than face another fight.
Republicans including McCain and Graham had pushed to delay the vote over concerns about Hagel's record on relations with Israel and policy towards Iran. Others piled up requests for details of Hagel’s consulting work and speaking fees as well as ongoing questions unrelated to Hagel about the administration's handling of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya.
Hagel himself did nothing to help advance his nomination with a wobbly performance at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Grilled by his former colleagues, the nominee frequently stumbled over predictable questions over past controversial statements—like his complaint that the "Jewish lobby" intimidated American lawmakers, a comment for which he has apologized—or controversial positions on how best to pressure Iran.
The bitterly divided committee voted on Tuesday to send Hagel's nomination to the full Senate for consideration. The vote was 14-11, with all Republicans voting no.
Holly Bailey contributed reporting.