Chuck Hagel, John Brennan threatened with Senate 'hold.' What's that?

GOP Sen. Lindsay Graham may put a 'hold' on Senate votes to confirm Chuck Hagel to head the Pentagon and John Brennan the CIA, citing a need for more information about the Benghazi, Libya, terrorist attacks. How that would work.

Gary Cameron/Reuters
Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on his nomination to be the director of the CIA, on Capitol Hill in Washington last week.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Obama's choice for defense secretary, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, last month.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina on Sunday threatened to place a “hold” on the nominations of Chuck Hagel to head the Pentagon and John Brennan to run the CIA. Senator Graham said he would block Senate confirmation votes on the two men until he gets more information about President Obama’s actions during the deadly Sept. 11attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

“We’re going to get to the bottom of Benghazi,” said Graham on CBS News’ "Face the Nation."

Hmmm. Will that work? Is it possible for one senator to just bring Senate proceedings to a halt? Does this mean that Mr. Hagel and Mr. Brennan will twist in the wind for an indefinite period of time?

Yes, it will work if Graham presses the issue (he has threatened this for some time). Yes, “holds” are a venerable Senate procedure. No, it won’t work indefinitely, at least in this case, because the GOP does not appear to want to mount a full-blown filibuster against either nominee.

Let’s explore holds for a moment, and then we’ll touch on Graham and his possible motives.

The first point to make here is that the Senate is not the House. With only 100 members, it’s more of a club than the other chamber. It has always operated in a separate, idiosyncratic world, in which members cede some deference to other members on the theory that a day will come when they’ll want some deference themselves.

Thus we have the “hold,” a practice whose exact origin “has been lost in the mists of history,” according to a Congressional Research Service history and analysis of the subject.

Under a hold, an individual senator can tell his or her party leader that certain measures should not be brought to the floor. As CRS notes, implicit in this notice is the threat that the senator in question would filibuster the measure if necessary. That’s why the practice is sometimes called a “silent filibuster.”

Senate rules call for the majority leader, sometimes in concert with the minority leader, to decide whether and for how long to honor these requests. So technically speaking, if Graham does stop these nominations via a hold, majority leader Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada will have agreed to the move.

The original reason for the practice was to allow busy senators to stop bills that might affect their home states, or an issue in which they had a particular interest, until such time as they could give the legislation their full attention. But in the modern era of holds, beginning about 1970, lawmakers began to use them as leverage to try to further their own political and policy agendas.

As the Senate changed from a place run by an inner circle of old bulls to today’s more individualistic chamber, the use of holds exploded. In that sense they’re really more a modern invention than a legislative tradition, wrote political scientist Jonathan Bernstein on his popular politics blog in 2010.

Secret holds used to be possible. Rules now call for the name of the senator placing a hold to be made public after two days. But it’s still possible to maintain secrecy via tag-team holds, in which a senator objects to a measure, then withdraws after two days to be replaced by a compatriot, and so on.

That’s the context in which Graham is threatening his move. The South Carolina Republican has been a pit bull on the Benghazi question, charging that the administration has not been forthcoming on what happened prior to and during the attack, and delayed producing answers due to the politics of the 2012 presidential election.

This appears to be a genuine belief on his part, notes Washington Post political bloggers Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake, but he also may be attempting political damage control of his own. Graham has long been viewed suspiciously by conservatives, who see him as someone not quite adherent to their principles. He’s up for reelection in 2014, and he’s trying to make sure he does not draw a primary challenge from the right.

Fighting on the Benghazi issue and against the nomination of Hagel in particular “is a way for Graham to prove (or maybe remind) the party base that while they may not be with him on every issue, he remains a committed conservative,” write Cillizza and Blake.

The problem for Graham is that the real power of the hold is in its threat of a filibuster, and that threat appears hollow in the case of Obama’s national security nominees. At the moment there do not appear to be enough GOP votes to deprive either of the 60 needed to overcome filibuster opposition.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona indicated this Sunday during a talk show appearance. Though he had ripped into Hagel during the latter’s nomination hearing and appears likely to vote against the nomination, Senator McCain on "Fox News Sunday" said, “we’ve never filibustered a presidential cabinet appointee and I don’t think we should start here.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee is now set to vote on Hagel's nomination as secretary of Defense on Tuesday. The full Senate could take up a Hagel vote as early as Thursday.

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