Will Republicans regret the decision to delay Chuck Hagel's nomination?

Republicans flexed some political muscle with their unprecedented filibuster of a cabinet nominee. But it could open them to charges of 'obstructionism' and lead to more constraints on the power of the minority.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona (l.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina confer at the start of Thursday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. The two Republicans are opposing the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of Defense.

Did Senate Republicans win a political victory with their filibuster (though they've declined to call it that) of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel? Or will it prove to be a Pyrrhic one?

On the one hand, Republicans are again putting the White House on notice that, despite their minority status, they still have the power to block pretty much any part of President Obama's agenda – including even his cabinet nominees – and that Democrats are going to have to work with them, if they want to get anything done. 

On the other hand, Republicans have opened themselves up to charges of taking "obstruction" to new heights, with an unprecedented filibuster of a cabinet nominee, who happens to be a decorated Vietnam veteran and a Republican. Republicans have done this, Democrats will argue, because they view Mr. Hagel as a traitor to his party for turning against the Iraq War (an issue on which the majority of Americans side with Hagel, according to polls).

More to the point, this may prove to be just the incentive Democrats need when it comes to passing meaningful filibuster reform – as opposed to the watered-down measure passed last month – in order to put more constraints on the power of the minority.

In hindsight, it's telling that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) decided to go ahead with the cloture vote, knowing he probably didn't have the 60 votes needed to end debate and proceed to an up-or-down vote on Hagel's nomination. Reid could have just delayed the matter, while Democrats tried to get one more Republican to agree to cloture. But instead he forced the other side to go through with their filibuster threat.

As Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas theorized later: "The White House and the majority leader were determined to have this vote in order to try to get a story in the newspaper, one that misrepresents the nature of the objection on [the Republican] side."

Indeed, Senator Reid immediately charged those Republicans blocking Hagel's nomination with jeopardizing the nation's security in order to please their base. "Watching Republicans with otherwise distinguished records on national security place their desire to please the tea party ahead of doing the right thing for our troops is one of the saddest spectacles I have witnessed in my 27 years in the Senate," Reid said on the floor Thursday night.

But if Democrats do succeed in, as Senator Cornyn put it, "misrepresent[ing] the nature of the objection," that will also be because Republicans haven't put forward anything close to a unified, coherent argument as to why they're blocking Hagel's nomination. 

For some, like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, it isn't about Hagel at all, but an attempt to get more information from the White House on the terror attack in Benghazi. For others, like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, it's about demanding more financial disclosure from Hagel.

For still others, it seems more like a personal vendetta. Arizona Sen. John McCain's much-replayed comments to Fox News Thursday almost certainly won't be helpful to the Republican cause. "There’s a lot of ill will towards Senator Hagel because when he was a Republican, he attacked President Bush mercilessly," McCain told host Neil Cavuto. "At one point, he said [Bush] was the worst president since Herbert Hoover, said that the surge was the worst blunder since the Vietnam War, which is nonsense – and he was very anti his own party and people. People don’t forget that."

The fact that enough Republicans have already publicly said they'll vote in favor of cloture when the Senate reconvenes, thereby allowing Hagel to be confirmed – since there are already more than 50 senators in the "yea" column – makes Thursday's filibuster seem even more petty and political. The only saving grace for the GOP is that this fight is still an inside-the-Beltway issue that the majority of voters aren't likely to be following all that closely. (A Quinnipiac poll from last week found that more than two-thirds of Americans "haven't heard enough" about Hagel to have either a favorable or unfavorable opinion of him.)

Given everything else White House officials are focused on these days, they may choose to just let the matter quietly resolve itself 10 days from now. But if they decide to go on offense – in an effort, perhaps, to salvage Hagel's reputation – it's not hard to see how they could turn this matter against Republicans.

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