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Chuck Hagel’s halting and unconvincing appearance Jan. 31 before the Senate Armed Services Committee hardened Republican opposition to his confirmation, but his critics would likely have to mount an unprecedented, and very divisive, challenge to block him from becoming Defense secretary.
Since Hagel appears to enjoy the support of most, if not all, Democrats, Republicans would have to filibuster his nomination — something that has never been done to a Cabinet nominee since the advent of the 60-vote threshold nearly four decades ago, according to Senate records.
Several Cabinet nominees have failed to win the backing of a majority of senators — and others have withdrawn their names before reaching the Senate floor — but a filibuster would mark a serious breach in the unwritten protocol that governs the Senate. Such a challenge could also disrupt the deal reached last month between Democratic and Republican leaders to overhaul the filibuster.
No Republicans have said yet that they will demand Hagel clear that 60-vote hurdle, but the possibility has been bubbling below the surface in the Senate in recent days.
An aide to Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, who has been among the most vocal opponents of Hagel’s nomination, said Feb. 1 that “all options are on the table.”
Others in GOP leadership do not want to break with precedent. Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman Roy Blunt of Missouri said Feb. 1 that while he does not support Hagel’s nomination, he also does not believe Republicans should filibuster it.
“I think for somebody who is going to be there the length of time the president serves, as opposed to a Supreme Court judge, that a majority in the Senate should be able to confirm,” Blunt told MSNBC. “I wouldn’t intend to be part of that majority, but my strong inclination would be that this is a vote that should be done by a majority and not a 60-vote standard.”
Top aides insist there is no discord among leaders, but statements made in the wake of Hagel’s highly scrutinized appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee indicate there could be a difference in opinion. The consensus among leadership aides, however, is that if a filibuster is to happen, it likely would be staged by a junior member.
Freshman Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas made clear at the hearing last week that he expects Hagel to provide the committee with additional transcripts from recent speeches, as well as more detailed financial disclosures.