Senators agreed on a path toward confirmation of Chuck Hagel as U.S. defense secretary, after Republicans said they will drop opposition to acting on his nomination once lawmakers return from a weeklong break.
An initial effort yesterday to cut off debate fell short of the 60 votes needed because Republicans demanded more time. The vote on the so-called cloture motion was 58-40, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid immediately announced the next roll call would be held Feb. 26.
Yesterday’s Republican move to delay action marked the first time the minority party in the Senate had threatened a filibuster to block a nominee to lead the Pentagon. Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said he scheduled the initial vote yesterday because Republicans have engaged in “one stall after another” in an increasingly acrimonious fight against Hagel.
“I will vote on cloture the day we get back, and I believe enough of my colleagues will do the same,” Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has led criticism of Hagel, said on the Senate floor. Once debate is cut off, Hagel would have the majority he needs for confirmation because Democrats control 55 votes in the 100-member Senate.
Obama’s choice of Hagel, 66, to replace retiring Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been challenged by Republicans because of the former Republican senator’s past opposition to unilateral sanctions against Iran, his comments about the influence of what he once called “the Jewish lobby,” and his opposition to the 2007 U.S. troop surge in Iraq.
In only two previous cases has a Cabinet nominee required 60 votes to overcome a filibuster on the Senate floor, according to Betty Koed, the chamber’s associate historian. They were President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 pick for Commerce Secretary, C. William Verity, and President George W. Bush’s 2006 choice of Dirk Kempthorne to be Interior Secretary. Both overcame the higher vote threshold to win confirmation.
After yesterday’s debate, Reid said the Republican-led delay raised questions about the Pentagon’s leadership at a time of heightened tensions with Syria, North Korea and other nations. He said the delay may give opponents in Congress further opportunities to derail Hagel’s nomination.
“I hope nothing goes wrong that we’ll rue the day, more than just embarrassing the president, the Senate and the country in not confirming the president’s nomination of this good man from Nebraska,” Reid said.
“Senate Republicans put political posturing ahead of our nation’s security,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement. The U.S. and its allies will talk about the war in Afghanistan at a North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in Brussels next week, Carney said, “and our next secretary of defense should be there.”
Panetta has said he will stay on until a successor is confirmed, and he is planning to go to the Brussels conference.
Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican leader, said it was “premature” to try to close off debate when lawmakers in his party were making “reasonable” requests of the White House for more information.
“This is not an effort to kill this nomination,” Cornyn said on the Senate floor. Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina were among Republicans who said yesterday that they would vote next time to end the debate.
Republicans said Reid took a risky move in scheduling the vote when some members of their party wanted more information about a confirmation approved by the Senate Armed Services on a party-line 14-11 vote just two days earlier.
Senator Ted Cruz, a first-term Tea Party-backed Texas Republican, has demanded more information about Hagel’s finances and speaking engagements.
Graham had called for a delay until the White House explained what Obama did personally to encourage military action during the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
In a letter to Graham and two other Republican senators, White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Libya’s interim President Mohammed Yussef Magariaf “on behalf of the president on the evening of Sept. 11, 2012, to coordinate additional support to protect Americans in Libya and access to Libyan territory.”
Ruemmler said the administration “has cooperated with the Armed Services Committee and the Congress to provide an extensive amount of information” on the Benghazi attack. She cited 20 briefings, 10 hearings and the providing of 10,000 pages of documents.
Graham said yesterday the letter shows Obama “never picked up the phone” the night of the attacks. He said direct involvement by Obama might have prevented two of the deaths at a CIA annex a mile from the consulate an hour after the initial attack. Graham and McCain vowed to continue seeking information from the administration on the attacks.
Opposition to Hagel, including ads on cable television, has been led by Republicans outside Congress such as William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard magazine.
Kristol and McCain are among Republicans who favor a more aggressive U.S. military stance abroad and who broke with Hagel when he opposed the surge of troops in Iraq during President George W. Bush’s administration.
McCain repeatedly pressed Hagel at last month’s confirmation hearing to say that he had been wrong about the surge. Hagel refused McCain’s demands for a yes-or-no answer.
“His performance before this committee was the worst that I have seen of any nominee for office,” McCain said this week. “He refused to answer a simple, straightforward question as to whether the surge was a success or not, and whether he supported it or not. That was a key moment in the history of this country.”
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