Amid accusations of a GOP filibuster, Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked a vote on the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Defense secretary Thursday, but senators appeared poised to clear the nomination after the Presidents Day recess, barring any unexpected revelations.
By a 58-40 vote, the Senate defeated an effort to cut off debate, short of the 60-vote threshold for cloture. Four Republicans — Susan Collins of Maine, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mike Johanns of Nebraska — voted with Democrats to cut off debate. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., switched his vote to join the prevailing side so he could make a motion to reconsider.
Pressing for quick action, the White House accused Republicans of political posturing on the nomination. “For the sake of national security, it’s time to stop playing politics with our Department of Defense, and to move beyond the distractions and delay,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Although the cloture effort was defeated, senators seem ready to advance the Hagel nomination when they get back from recess Feb. 25.
“We’re going to vote, as I said, Tuesday when we get back in the morning,” Reid said.
Several Republicans, including John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, said Thursday afternoon on the Senate floor that while they would vote against cloture this week, they would be willing to allow the nomination to move forward when Congress returns after recess.
“I think that is a sufficient period of time to get answers to outstanding questions,” McCain said.
Graham added, “I plan to vote for cloture, but against the nomination” after recess. Just minutes after McCain, Graham and Alexander said they would support cloture after recess, Reid came to the floor to move the cloture vote to 4:15 p.m. Thursday. The vote was previously scheduled for Friday.
Despite lawmakers temporarily blocking the nomination, Republicans have insisted the delay on Hagel is not unprecedented.
“This is not the first time we have had a delay in confirmation of a secretary of Defense,” McCain said, referring to questions that were raised over the nomination of former Texas Sen. John Tower, who was George Bush’s nominee for the position in 1989.
The Senate has also previously filibustered two Cabinet officials — Dirk Kempthorne for Interior and C. William Verity for Commerce. Two other Cabinet positions — Kathleen Sebelius for Health and Human Services and John Bryson for Commerce — were subject to 60-vote thresholds.
Many Republicans have repeatedly said this week they were not formally filibustering the Hagel nomination. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said Wednesday there are “filibusters designed to draw out more information, and there are filibusters designed to ultimately defeat the candidates.” Ranking Republican of the Armed Services Committee, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, has insisted this is not a filibuster. Democrats on Thursday dismissed that argument.
“Let no one kid each other,” Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said. “What we’re deciding here today is whether or not we’re going to continue with a filibuster.”
John Cornyn, R-Texas, implied Reid was forcing the Hagel cloture vote to make the story about Republicans filibustering the nomination. “I realize that’s the headline the majority leader would like the newspapers to write,” Cornyn said, adding that would “misrepresent” GOP objections.
“If this is not a filibuster, I’d like to see what a filibuster is,” Reid said.
While Republicans are not ready to move ahead on the nomination, Hagel will likely be cleared when senators return. McCain, who does not support Hagel’s nomination but is opposed to filibustering a Cabinet nominee, expressed optimism about finding a path forward Thursday. He said he wanted to hold off on a vote until he received more information from the White House on last year’s fatal attacks at a U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya.
The White House’s response, dated Feb. 14, “largely satisfied my concerns about that, but other senators have other concerns,” McCain said. “I’m hopeful that we can work out agreement to have the vote as soon as we get back. I don’t believe that we need a 60-vote margin.”
Multiple Concerns From GOP
Republicans have offered a host of objections in recent days to confirming the former Nebraska Republican senator, including his views on Iran, Israel and the United States’ nuclear arsenal, as well as alleged gaps in his financial disclosures.
“We do have an obligation of advise and consent — a constitutional responsibility — and we’re trying to carry this out,” McCain said, noting that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta was not being forced out.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said Thursday that Panetta will leave his post after Hagel is confirmed, “which the secretary hopes happens as quickly as possible.”
Democrats thought they had the votes to overcome a filibuster, but Reid’s statement accused Republicans of “moving the goal posts at the last minute” in terms of their demands for allowing the nominee to be voted on.
The Feb. 14 letter, signed by White House counsel Kathryn H. Ruemmler, is in response to a Feb. 12 letter from McCain, Graham and fellow Republican Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire asking whether President Barack Obama had been in touch with the Libyans on the day of the attack to discuss security in the country. In it, Ruemmler assures the senators that Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was then secretary of State, initially called Libyan President Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf on behalf of Obama “to coordinate additional support to protect Americans in Libya and access to Libyan territory.” Obama spoke with al-Magariaf the next day.
On Thursday, the White House pleaded for quick confirmation of Hagel.
“We urge the Republicans in the Senate to drop their delay,” spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters. “There is a clear majority in the United States Senate for Sen. Hagel’s confirmation. These delaying tactics are unconscionable, and they should end right away.”
Two Republicans — Cochran, the ranking member on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, and Johanns — have said they will support Hagel’s confirmation.
John M. Donnelly, Matt Fuller and Sarah Chacko contributed to this report.