The Senate panel overseeing Pentagon nominations plans to vote Tuesday on the contentious nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Defense secretary. And while the committee may vote along party lines to recommend confirmation, some Republicans are expected to delay action on the Senate floor.
Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., plans to hold a vote shortly after convening the executive meeting at 2:30 p.m., following a week of elevated threats from GOP lawmakers who are opposed to the former Nebraska Republican senator’s nomination.
But the meeting, according to senior congressional officials, was scheduled with the support of ranking Republican James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma.
Indeed, a senior GOP aide said some members of the panel who expressed displeasure that a vote might be scheduled before all their requests for information were met appear to have gotten caught up in errant news reports that Levin would try to ramrod a vote on Hagel. Some of this may reflect an ignorance of the panel’s long-held processes, the aide said.
“I have full confidence in the committee’s rigorous process for vetting nominees, which has been developed and relied upon for decades by members of both parties,” John McCain of Arizona, a senior member of the Armed Services panel, said Monday in a written statement, adding that he was troubled by Hagel’s testimony.
“This process ensures a comprehensive and thorough examination of every aspect of a nominee’s history, including but not limited to personal and public records, tax returns, potential conflicts of interest and an FBI background check, all carried out by highly experienced professionals from both parties.”
GOP aides also said suggestions that the panel had suddenly taken a turn toward partisanship are erroneous.
“People were upset at the process and rumors about what was going to happen,” one senior GOP aide said. “It didn’t pan out. Nothing could have been further from the truth.”
No Walkout Planned
Inhofe and Levin spoke Monday morning and agreed on a time. Senior congressional aides noted that Republicans had a strong desire to hold a meeting specific to the Hagel nomination vote so that members would have an opportunity to voice their concerns instead of voting during an unrelated hearing.
Aides said Inhofe had every intention of attending the Hagel meeting and, despite rumors that some Republican members might want to walk out of the session in protest, he isn’t encouraging such behavior.
“The ranking member is not going to walk out,” a congressional aide said. “It is not what he is calling for and not what he is encouraging.”
McCain, the former ranking member, also refused to take part in a walkout.
“I will not participate in any walkout of tomorrow’s Committee vote — an action that would be disrespectful to Chairman Levin and at odds with the best traditions of the Senate Armed Services Committee,” McCain said.
But while there is agreement on holding a vote in committee, there are vast divisions over the Hagel nomination as it goes to the floor.
Over the weekend, Inhofe threatened to push for a 60-vote threshold for the floor vote on Hagel, while Lindsey Graham of South Carolina suggested he would place a hold on Hagel’s nomination until — and if — the Obama administration releases more information about last year’s fatal attack on a U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya.
“I think people will line up to put holds on him once he hits the floor,” one senior GOP aide said.
The aide said that while there have been a number of occasions where nominations were held to a 60-vote threshold, far fewer Cabinet-level posts have been forced to meet that threshold. Indeed, a Cabinet nomination has never been successfully blocked by filibuster.
Inhofe told the National Review on Monday that he would insist on a 60-vote threshold for Hagel.
“Hagel may be passed out of the committee, but it’s going to be a long, long time before he hits the floor,” Inhofe said. “We’re going to need as much time as possible, and there are going to be several of us who will have holds.”
A GOP aide noted that not since the 1989 nomination of John Tower to take over the Defense Department under George Bush’s administration has there been such discord over a Defense nomination. Tower eventually lost the vote on the Senate floor.
“I have to put it on par with Tower,” the senior GOP aide said. “That is how contentious this is. This is a contentious nomination that needs the process that we have gone through.”
But McCain and Graham made what appeared to be contradictory statements to reporters Monday night about the wisdom of moving ahead with a filibuster, with Graham insisting on the strategy of tying confirmations to getting information on Benghazi.
“I’m going to insist that the president account for his leadership that night in the most basic way. Did he personally get involved? To me, the only leverage I have is these nominations,” Graham said in reference to Hagel and the nomination of John O. Brennan to be CIA director. “I hate that, but that’s the way the system works, unfortunately.” Graham added that he thought McCain would be right there with him.
McCain, however, said he does not see a reason to obstruct Hagel moving ahead if the votes are there. The Arizona Republican was at a meeting of SASC Republicans this afternoon, but “very few were there because of the weather.”
“I’m encouraging my colleagues that if they want to vote against Sen. Hagel, that’s one thing and that’s a principled stand. We do not want to filibuster. We have not filibustered Cabinet appointees in the past,” McCain said. There has never been a successful filibuster of a Cabinet pick leading to an individual being denied his or her seat.
“We should move forward with this nomination and bring it to the floor and vote up or down,” McCain said. “Someday we will have a Republican president. Someday we may even have a majority in the United States Senate.” Hagel being confirmed would be “the will of the Senate” if it happens, McCain said.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said earlier Monday that he hoped the Senate would be able to vote Wednesday or Thursday on Hagel.
“There’s never in the history of the country ever been a filibuster on a Defense secretary, and I’m confident there won’t be on this one,” he said Monday on the Senate floor.
Panel Republicans have increasingly grown restive on the typically less partisan Armed Services panel. Initially, discord appeared over the handling by the administration of the Benghazi attack in which four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, were killed.
Later, Hagel’s nomination developed into a new proxy between Republicans and the administration. Republicans have expressed doubts about Hagel’s views on Israel, Iran, nuclear weapons and the war in Iraq, which Hagel at first supported before turning against his party and opposing the war and the surge in 2007.
No Democrat has come out against Hagel, while only two GOP senators have suggested that they would support him: Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Mike Johanns of Nebraska.
Hagel’s toughest critics include Inhofe, Graham and freshman Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, among others.
Some 26 senators signed a letter last week demanding enormous levels of further financial disclosures from Hagel, suggesting that a vote be put off until the information was provided. In a response, Levin wrote a letter to the GOP lawmakers saying no more information was forthcoming because Hagel had met all normal thresholds for disclosures.
McCain supported Levin’s position.
“I have examined the information and responses to members’ questions that Senator Hagel has provided to the committee, and I believe that he has fulfilled the rigorous requirements that the committee demands of every presidential nominee to be secretary of Defense,” McCain said. “As a result, I believe it is appropriate for the Armed Services Committee to vote on Senator Hagel’s nomination and determine whether to move this nomination to the Senate floor, where members can debate and express their own judgments on Senator Hagel.”
Certainly, senators also will have another chance to vent their concerns during the executive meeting.
Niels Lesniewski and Sarah Chacko contributed to this report.