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GOP Playing Game of Chicken with Hagel Nomination

A veteran  Capitol Hill observer told me recently that he sees nothing to suggest that congressional Republicans have any intention of negotiating in good faith with President Obama in his second term, despite his strong showing in the election.

Perhaps one need look no further than Senate Republicans working to slow, if not defeat, the confirmation of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary.

In a vote that broke down along party lines on Thursday, Senate Republicans blocked the end of a filibuster, temporarily denying a vote on Hagel’s confirmation.

Hagel caught grief during his hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee from Republicans who demanded more detailed answers about the administration’s response to the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. For weeks now, Congress has pressed the administration for details and says it has been rebuffed repeatedly.

In a bid to force the administration’s hand, several Republican senators, most notably Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said they would use blocks to slow or stop Hagel’s nomination from going forward.

Graham and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had indicated, however, that they would stop short of supporting a filibuster on the nomination.

At least that’s what they said.

Hagel’s nomination made it out of the Armed Services Committee, but Republicans called for a 60-vote majority to end debate before voting on the floor of the Senate.

After intense maneuvering on both sides of the aisle, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called for the vote after Republicans said they wanted a 60-vote majority  to decide whether to move forward with the confirmation vote, which only requires a simple majority.

It was the first time in Senate history that a 60-vote rule was ever applied to a nominee for secretary of defense.

In essence, because the Democrats could not muster the 60 votes, it keeps the discussion open and works essentially as a filibuster without calling it one.

McCain and Graham, both members of the Armed Services Committee, voted with their party, keeping Hagel’s nomination from moving forward. The vote was 58 to 40.

Political observers have said they believe that eventually Hagel will be confirmed, but that the Republicans would drag it out for as long as possible.

Even before Thursday’s vote, several Senators said they would use their “holds” to slow down the process.

“A hold is basically a pledge by an individual senator that he will deny unanimous consent to move forward. And if you have a whole series of them, you can delay things for a period of time,” Norman Orenstein of the American Enterprise Institute said Wednesday during a reporters’ roundtable on NPR’s “Diane Rehm Show.”

“A filibuster of this nomination, if it really did take place, I think, would create real turmoil in the Senate, might bring filibuster reform right back to center stage.”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen. I don’t think Republicans are going to do that. They know that this would be unprecedented and come back at them at some point in the future,” said Byron York of The Washington Examiner. “But the key issue, of course, is no Democrats have peeled off. If a Democrat — if only one Democrat had peeled off, Republicans would have been encouraged and emboldened, but that hasn’t happened.”

But when Reid pushed for the vote, the Democrats couldn’t pull in enough Republicans to vote with them and stop the brinksmanship.

The Democrats will try again after the Senate returns from a 10-day recess and several Republicans told The New York Times that they would not block a final vote. But opponents have vowed to rally the troops outside the Capitol, to wage a full-scale attack on Hagel’s character to get Americans to contact senators and demand that they not vote for the former Republican senator from Nebraska and decorated Vietnam War veteran.

“He’s going to be confirmed. It’s a question of timing, not outcome, because — and very appropriately, folks like Sen. McCain, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine have made clear that they don’t think that there would be a filibuster. And so if somebody were to go down that road, there just aren’t the votes to sustain it,” Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post said during the roundtable.

Like the fiscal cliff and the looming sequester, it appears that another political game of chicken has begun.

Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”

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