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The Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday endorsed Chuck Hagel for secretary of Defense in a party-line vote after a fractious markup, with senators getting into heated exchanges over the nominee’s financial disclosures and threatening to filibuster the nomination.
The panel endorsed the former Nebraska Republican senator 14-11, but only after GOP members promised to oppose the nomination on the floor and insist on a 60-vote majority for confirmation.
Freshman Sen. Ted Cruz accused Hagel of hiding something after he would not reveal individual compensation amounts in excess of $5,000. “The only reasonable inference is that there is something in there that they did not want to make public,” Cruz said.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., lectured Cruz on using “comity and civility” on the committee, and he called out the Texas Republican for insinuating that Hagel may have received money from “radical or extreme groups.”
“Sen. Cruz has gone over the line. He has basically impugned the patriotism of the nominee,” Nelson said.
The panel’s ranking Republican, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, then shot back that Cruz’s inference was not a major leap.
“Sen. Nelson was criticizing our senator there for implying that Chuck Hagel was cozy with terrorist-type countries, referring to Iran,” Inhofe said. “I’d say he’s endorsed by them. You can’t get any cozier than that.”
Cruz also made a point of personal privilege, used when a matter affects a single member, and said he had been a champion of Hagel’s sacrifices in service to the United States. “In no way, shape or form have I impugned his patriotism,” Cruz said.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, however, broke with fellow Republicans on the issue of whether Hagel had complied with the committee’s disclosure requests and over the tactics surrounding a possible filibuster. McCain issued a news release Monday saying he believed Hagel had “fulfilled the rigorous requirements” the committee demands. He said the vote, scheduled by Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., was appropriate and that he would not participate in a walkout — “an action that would be disrespectful to Chairman Levin and at odds with the best traditions of the Senate Armed Services Committee.”
Levin said a defeat of Hagel’s nomination would leave the Defense Department “leaderless at a time when we face immense budgetary challenges and our military is engaged in combat operations overseas.” He added that voting against Hagel would send the “exact wrong message to North Korea,” which performed a nuclear arms test less than 24 hours before the markup.
Although the panel held the vote open for an additional 15 minutes to allow Sen. David Vitter time to get to the chamber, the Louisiana Republican was unable to make it there in time to vote against Hagel. Vitter had asked Levin to delay the vote so members could review undisclosed speeches from Hagel that the senator obtained in the last 24 hours.
Levin rejected Vitter’s request. “This could go on forever,” he said.
The panel chairman had hoped to hold the Hagel vote during a hearing Feb. 7 on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. But many Republicans balked, with 26 GOP senators sending a letter to Hagel asking for additional financial information. Eventually Levin said Hagel had provided “all the financial information the rules of the committee require,” and he scheduled a vote.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Monday that he would move the Hagel nomination to the Senate floor “just as quickly as possible,” adding that Democrats hope to finish confirmation by Wednesday or Thursday.
“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,” Reid said.
Panel member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Tuesday he would filibuster the nomination until he got answers on President Barack Obama’s response to the attack in Libya.
“I think they’re trying to jam it down our throats,” Graham said, referring to the impending floor vote.
Inhofe also said Tuesday he would “insist on a 60-vote” majority. Inhofe said he thinks he can get the unanimous consent agreement to establish a 60-vote threshold for confirmation without filibustering. Asked if he had leverage to raise the margin, Inhofe said, “You got it.”
Reid said Tuesday he would not agree to raise the margin for Hagel’s confirmation to the 60-vote threshold, adding that he would not honor holds on the nomination either.
Although a 60-vote threshold would avoid delays associated with invoking cloture under Senate Rule XXII, Hagel supporters would need to be certain they had the votes for such a move. None of the 55 Democratic senators has come out against Hagel, and two GOP senators, Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Mike Johanns of Nebraska, have signaled support for Hagel’s confirmation.
Democrats have repeatedly argued that filibustering a Cabinet position would be unprecedented; voluntarily imposing a three-fifths margin would make the point moot.
Although two Cabinet nominations have been subjected to cloture votes, and two were approved under a 60-vote threshold, the Senate has rejected only nine Cabinet nominations in its history. Twelve nominations were withdrawn or received no action.