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Hagel Confirmation Fight Revives Debate Over Senate's Filibuster Rules

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Supporters of more robust changes to the Senate’s filibuster said the block of Hagel, above, could push Reid to do more to address the procedure.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said Thursday that outgoing Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta will leave his post after Hagel, a former GOP senator from Nebraska, is confirmed, “which the secretary hopes happens as quickly as possible.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., alluded to that, saying no one was forcing Panetta to leave.

“We do have an obligation of advise and consent — a constitutional responsibility — and we’re trying to carry this out,” McCain said.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has personal experience as a Cabinet nominee subject to a delay. Then-Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, held up Alexander’s nomination to be President George Bush’s Education secretary for about three months.

“I think it’s nothing more than an example of the majority leader moving prematurely to end debate,” Alexander said. “In the case of the secretary of Defense, you would think that you allow more that two days after a nomination comes out of committee to allow senators to ask questions and consider the record.”

While senators could not even agree on how to define a filibuster, some of the arguing sounded like a bid to confuse the umpires.

Sarah Binder, a scholar at George Washington University and the Brookings Institution who studies the Senate’s rules, wrote Thursday on the Monkey Cage blog that the action on Hagel should rightly be called a filibuster using a “duck test”: “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then ... it’s a filibuster!”

The Senate rules changes adopted in January would, among other changes, cut down on the amount of debate required after cloture has already been invoked on nominations short of the Cabinet level and create an expedited process for considering lower-level judicial nominations. None of the changes related to nominations eliminate the ability of a senator to force a procedural vote with a 60-vote threshold to cut off a filibuster.

Other changes give Reid more flexibility in moving legislation to the floor, but those modifications also fundamentally preserve the supermajority requirements. George Kohl, senior director of the Communications Workers of America, one of the groups that led the push from the outside for rules changes, said Reid should go further.

“Reid should keep the Senate in session and force the debate to continue to explain why Republicans are intent on blocking a fellow Republican nominee and decorated war veteran,” Kohl said. “Leader Reid accepted the obligation to sustain debate under these terms when he agreed to continue unchanged filibuster rules.”

But McCain, who helped draft the rules agreement, said he didn’t think the Hagel matter was related to the package approved by the Senate earlier in the session to reduce the number of filibusters and allow more amendments to legislation.

“I don’t see it, frankly, as a test,” he said. “Our rules were that if you do filibuster ... that you better stay there for your hour and line up others.”

John M. Donnelly and Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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