Why Republican delay isn't likely to stop Chuck Hagel confirmation

Republican senators blocked a vote on the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Defense secretary. But they acknowledged that the situation could be different in a few days.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
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. Republican senators vowed to stop Hagel’s nomination to be the nation's next secretary of Defense.

Republicans vowed to stop Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be the nation’s next secretary of Defense dead in its tracks – until the end of the month, at least.

Saying that questions about the decorated Vietnam veteran’s finances and former speeches – not to mention details from the White House about the Benghazi terror attack – needed to be addressed, Republicans blocked an attempt to move Mr. Hagel's nomination to a vote on the Senate floor.

The vote was 58 to 40 – with 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

But the delay does not mean the end of former Republican senator Hagel's bid. The financial information requested by Republicans should be forthcoming within 10 days or so, and GOP senators insisted that then they'd be willing to move Hagel's nomination to the floor for a vote, where only a simple majority of senators could confirm him for the Pentagon's top job.

Until that day, a trio of Republican senators can continue to blast the White House over its forthrightness concerning the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last Sept. 11.

The Hagel vote was yet another strange chapter in recent congressional history, as the traditions that define the Senate are subtly tweaked. Republican senators swear that they are not, in fact, filibustering the nominee. But Democrats swore the GOP was establishing a dangerous precedent: blocking a national-security nominee for the first time in US history.

Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee summed up of the position of perhaps a dozen Republican senators in his statement.

“Generally, I believe a president’s cabinet nominee deserves an up-or-down vote in the Senate, but in this case, I believe a number of my colleagues have raised legitimate concerns about information that hasn’t yet been made public and that extending the debate gives more time for these concerns to be addressed,” he said. “Once sufficient time has passed, I am perfectly open to a 51-vote threshold.”

Hagel's nomination has stalled only days after another Senate veteran, former Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, breezed through with minimal discussion en route to his confirmation as secretary of State. 

But Hagel, unlike Kerry, had to explain past controversial statements on Israel and Iran – a defense that he is widely viewed as having fumbled in his confirmation hearings. Moreover, Hagel's criticisms of Iraq policies favored by leading Republican hawks in the Senate appeared to rankle many of those members on a personal level.

The trio of Republican senators most keenly concerned with Benghazi – Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire – used the Hagel nomination to wring information out of the White House. Among other things, they asked whether President Obama called the Libyan government to ask for help for the embattled consulate. (The answer, it turns out, is “no.”)

They likely are not finished yet. John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to head the CIA, might be in for a "Hagel-ing" of his own when his nomination lands in the Senate after the Presidents Day recess.

Senators Ayotte, McCain, and Graham signaled that they would pound Mr. Brennan to find out who changed the talking points delivered to US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice before her visit to the Sunday talk show circuit shortly after the Benghazi incident. The Republican senators point out that those talking points incorrectly assessed the Benghazi attack on several issues.

“We're going to find out who changed those talking points,” Graham said, “or die trying.”

Yet Benghazi is not expected to derail Hagel's nomination. Republicans merely say they want more time to get their questions answered. 

“It's a time-honored practice,” said McCain, referencing the delay of a nominee to obtain information from the administration, during a discussion with reporters before the vote. “So the only leverage, honestly, that we have is to gauge our support for the nomination of a nominee on whether [the White House is] forthcoming with information or not.”

Graham added: “Unless there’s a bombshell” over the next 10 days, “we will move forward.”

All of this did not amuse Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada.

“Despite unprecedented responsiveness and transparency from the White House, Republicans have constantly invented new pretexts for opposing Senator Hagel’s nomination, and Republicans continued their embarrassing display of disregard for our national security by blocking Senator Hagel’s nomination today," he said. "Some Republican senators have said that they will change their votes, and allow his nomination to proceed at some point in the future. I will take them at their word, and I will hold them to their pledge.”

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