Reaffirming the idea that Congress is bitterly divided and unable to get anything done, today Senate Republicans blocked a vote on Chuck Hagel, President Obama's pick for secretary of Defense, though it seems likely that he'll eventually be confirmed. Democratic senators couldn't muster enough support for Hagel, falling just two votes short of the 60 needed to advance the nomination. Another vote is planned for when the Senate returns from recess in ten days, but the move marks the first time a Defense secretary nominee has been filibustered, and a new level of combativeness over a cabinet nominee.
While Hagel gave a terrible performance at his confirmation hearing earlier this month, that isn't the main issue holding up the process. Republican senators, led by John McCain and Lindsey Graham, said they would stall a vote on Hagel and CIA director nominee John Brennan unless the White House provided more information on its response to the attack in Benghazi. “It’s a time honored practice,” McCain said. “It’s a way for us to get information.”
As Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo explains, it isn't unprecedented for senators to put a hold on cabinet nominees. Usually the majority leader honors the hold, but in this case Harry Reid forced the GOP to go through with its filibuster threat. The New York Times reports that both sides spent Thursday trying to maneuver into a better political position. Knowing that Democrats probably didn't have the required 60 votes, Republicans thought Reid might back down to avoid an embarrassing loss. However, forcing Republicans to vote now allows Democrats to criticize them for playing politics with the nominations and putting national security at risk (though this just forces Leon Panetta to stay on longer).
After the vote, President Obama did just that. During an online “fireside hangout” Obama said the Republican Senate minority "seems to think that the rule now is that you need to have 60 votes for everything,” adding, “it’s just unfortunate that this kind of politics intrudes at a time when I’m still presiding over a war in Afghanistan and I need a secretary of defense who is coordinating with our allies."
Due to a counterintuitive Senate rule, Reid voted with the GOP so that he can call a new vote, probably on February 25. Bizarrely, several Republicans also suggested that they'd be willing to let the vote on Hagel go forward 10 days from now. “After the break, we can have a cloture vote, and I feel pretty comfortable I’d vote to move on — unless there’s some bombshell,” said Graham, with McCain making a similar statement. Following a vote to close off debate, the Senate can move forward with an up-or-down vote on Hagel, with only 51 votes for confirmation. Still, there's some concern that the groups opposing Hagel might make one last push to defeat his nomination during the break. Even if they're unsuccessful, the tough confirmation fight might have already weakened Hagel's standing on Capitol Hill, so there are plenty of reasons for him to bust out his many sad faces.