Playing Politics

Republicans Filibuster Hagel Nomination

Ali Gharib on the Senate Republicans' filibuster of Chuck Hagel's confirmation vote to lead the Defense Department.

The U.S. Senate today voted to filibuster the nomination of Chuck Hagel to serve as Barack Obama's defense chief. Four Republicans broke with their party and voted with 55 Democrats to end the debate on Hagel's nomination, hoping for a vote on whether or not to confirm Hagel. But with a total of only 59 votes—one short of the 60 needed for cloture, or the end of debate—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid changed his vote in order to preserve his right ot invoke cloture at a later date. With the final tally at 58 ayes, 40 noes, and one "present" vote by Utah Republican Orrin Hatch (David Vitter did not vote), Reid expressed regret and scheduled a re-vote for February 26, after the Senate returns from an impending 10-day break.

Republicans speaking both before the vote and after insisted the action wasn't a filibuster. "It's a filibuster, period," said the American Enterprise Institute's Norman Ornstein, an expert on Congressional procedures. "Anything where the bar for something that would normally require a majority requires a super-majority is a filibuster." He added: "In some of these cases, it may not fit the formal textbook definition of a filibuster. But if it looks like a filibuster, sounds like a filibuster, and acts like a filibuster, what's the dam difference?" The Senate's historian noted to the New York Times today that this would be the third filibuster of a cabinet-level presidential appointment since the advent of the modern filibuster rules in 1917. "Today, Senate Republicans put political posturing ahead of our nation’s security," said the White House in a statement. "For the first time in American history, Senate Republicans filibustered a nominee for Secretary of Defense."

Hagel's nomination was reported to the full Senate two days ago, after more than two-months of microspopic examination of his record since his name was floated. "There's been more than enough time in the past two days to review the new transcripts of speeches that have come in," said Armed Services Chair Carl Levin during the floor debate before the vote. "I think the continuation of what amounts to a filibuster, since 60 votes are required, is too bad." After the vote, Reid noted that the Armed Services Committee had held not one but two hearings on Hagel's nomination. "We had hearings on this. Hearings, not singularly, but pluraly," he said. "This has gone to the absurd." Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, had led the charge for an unpredented disclosure of information from Hagel, including an unsubstantiated suggestion that Hagel received $200,000 directly from North Korea, a U.S. enemy. A Democrat on the committee, Bill Nelson of Florida, responded that Cruz had "gone over the line."

John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two Republican hawks who grilled Hagel during hearings and voted in committee against reporting his nomination to the full Senate, said today that, barring new evidence, they would change their votes against cloture and allow an up-or-down vote on confirmation when the Senate returns in 10 days. The pair had both vowed to hold up the nomination until the Obama administration released information unrelated to Hagel about what calls the President had made on the evening of the Sept. 11 attack last year on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Though Obama responded to the Senators' inquiries with a letter today, Graham and McCain nonetheless voted against cloture. "This is foolishness," Reid said after the vote of the continued obstinacy.

For their parts, Graham and McCain said they voted against cloture to allow their colleagues more time to examine Hagel's record. "There are some questions by my colleagues, some I think are legitimate and some I think are setting a new standard," said Graham during the floor debate, the last point a possible refence to Cruz. He said that when the Senate returns, "I intend to vote for cloture and not the nomination." McCain sounded the same note: "I believe that Senators have the right to have those questions answered," he said. "I will vote for cloture on the day we get back, and I think most of my colleagues will do the same."

But speaking to Fox News afrter the vote, McCain seemed to admit the move was, as the White House said, just political posturing. "It goes back to, there's a lot of ill will towards Senator Hagel because when he was a Republican, he attacked President Bush mercilessly and say he was the worst president since Herbert Hoover and said the 'surge' was the worst blunder since the Vietnam war, which was nonsense," McCain told Fox's Neil Cavuto. "He was anti-his own party and people, people don't forget that. You can disagree but if you're disagreeable, people don't forget that."

Nonetheless, Hagel's opponents will keep digging for ten more days through every last bit of his record. Graham, though misattributing the story's single-source to Hagel's own staff, twice raised a story from a right-wing blog on the floor today. But other allegations seemed to fall apart. The same blog sought a video of a speech by Hagel to an Arab-American group, but the released video was reportedly utterly non-controversial. A separate right-wing blog had also suggested Hagel was tied to a group called "Friends of Hamas," which journalist David Weigel reported was unlikely, since the group seemed not to exist. No doubt Ted Cruz will keep hunting for the check from North Korea.