The White House and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta were so sure that former Sen. Chuck Hagel would be confirmed by now as the new secretary of defense that Panetta promised his wife he would step down from his post by noon today. Panetta then planned to board a plane to California, where he and his wife still maintain their primary residence, and be home in time to have Valentine’s Day dinner with her.
But it appears now that Republicans will not allow the Hagel nomination to go to the Senate floor for a vote, meaning Democrats would need 60 votes to override the Republican obstruction and force the vote. But as of this afternoon, the Hagel nomination appeared to be two votes shy of 60. Democrats have a Senate majority with 55 votes, but they were only able to count three Republican senators who were in favor of letting the nomination go to the floor.
So in a move that is nearly unprecedented in modern Washington, Republicans are filibustering one of the primary members of the president’s Cabinet — and possibly leaving a leadership void at the top of the nation’s military command if Panetta kept his promise to his wife.
If Democrats don’t have the votes to force the Hagel nomination onto the floor by tomorrow, the matter might be put aside until the Senate returns to work in two weeks. That would force Panetta to stay on longer than he would like, and make it likely that he would have to attend the NATO meeting scheduled for next week in Belgium.
Several Republicans, such as Arizona Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, were being coy about whether they would allow the Hagel nomination to move forward without requiring the 60 votes to end cloture, saying they still needed Hagel to provide more financial disclosures and for the White House to answer more questions about the conflict in Benghazi that led to the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. But Democrats angrily blasted the Republican games.
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader, in the Senate chamber today denounced Republicans for trying to use the confirmation process for political gain and accused them of undermining the nation’s security.
“This isn’t a high school getting ready for a football game,” Reid said. “We’re trying to confirm somebody to run the defenses of our country, the military of our country. For the sake of our national security, we need to put aside this political theater, and that’s what it is. People are worried about primary elections. We know how the Tea Party goes after election when they aren’t conservative enough. Is that something they need to have on their résumé? I filibustered one of the president’s nominees? Is that what they want?”
The White House was also harshly critical of Republican brinksmanship, alleging they were sending the wrong signal to the world. “We urge the Republicans in the Senate to drop their delay,” Josh Earnest, a spokesman for the president, told reporters aboard Air Force One. “There is a clear majority in the United States Senate for Senator Hagel’s confirmation. These delaying tactics are unconscionable, and they should end right away.”
The New York Times quoted Donald A. Ritchie, the Senate’s historian, as saying only twice since 1917, when the Senate’s modern filibuster rules were created, has a Cabinet-level nominee been subject to a super-majority vote of 60, as Republicans are forcing with Hagel.