The U.S. Senate began debate yesterday on Chuck Hagel’s nomination as defense secretary, with Democratic leaders opening their drive to push through President Barack Obama’s choice after the Armed Services Committee approved the selection on a party-line vote.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, facing threats of Republican-led efforts to stymie action on Hagel, took procedural action to force a vote tomorrow on ending the delaying tactics. That would set up a final vote no later than the next day.
“This is the first time in the history of our country that a presidential nominee for secretary of defense has been filibustered,” said Reid, a Nevada Democrat. “What a shame. But that’s the way it is.”
The 14-11 vote to confirm Hagel in the Democratic-led Armed Service panel on Feb. 12 underscored continued Republican resistance to Obama’s choice of the former Republican senator from Nebraska and decorated Vietnam War veteran to replace Leon Panetta as the Pentagon’s leader.
Predicting that Hagel will be confirmed, White House press secretary Jay Carney yesterday urged Republicans to let the Senate move soon to a final vote.
“It is clear that Senator Hagel is uniquely qualified to be secretary of defense, and it is clear that he has at least a majority of senators who would vote to confirm him,” Carney said. “We need to move forward with this nomination and make sure we have a secretary of defense, which is a key post when it comes to our national security interests.”
Obama’s choice of Hagel, 66, has been criticized by Republicans because of his 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. Hagel faced an onslaught of criticism from Republican lawmakers at his confirmation hearing two weeks ago.
Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who heads the Armed Services panel, has predicted all 55 senators who comprise the Democratic caucus will back Hagel, and at least five Republicans had previously indicated they would provide the added votes needed to block a threatened filibuster.
Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the panel’s top Republican, has hinted at a filibuster, saying he believes that 60 votes should be required to confirm Hagel.
Further complicating the process, Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, is calling for delays until the White House explains what Obama did to encourage military action during the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
“We don’t have the information we need, and I am going to fight the idea of jamming somebody through until we get answers about what the president did personally when it came to the Benghazi debacle,” Graham, a member of the Armed Services committee, told reporters yesterday.
Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans were killed in the Benghazi attack.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who opposes Hagel but has said he won’t vote for a filibuster, said yesterday he agrees that Graham deserves an answer before a confirmation vote. McCain said he’s confident the White House will produce the information Graham demands.
At a meeting of Senate Republicans yesterday, the lawmakers discussed whether to band together to seek a delay on the vote until after this week. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican leader, said no decision was reached.
“It’s all up in the air right now,” he said.
Before the Armed Services Committee vote, Levin said Hagel had explained or apologized for some of his more provocative past statements.
“Despite efforts of some to portray him as ‘outside the mainstream’ of American foreign policy, Senator Hagel has received broad support from a wide array of senior statesmen and defense and foreign policy organizations,” Levin said.
Several Republicans said Hagel failed to fully answer their questions about his finances and speeches he had given.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a freshman elected with Tea Party support, said lawmakers couldn’t be certain that Hagel didn’t give speeches underwritten by “radical” groups. Cruz said he also wanted to ensure Hagel didn’t deposit funds into his bank account that came from Saudi Arabia, North Korea or other foreign governments.
Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said Cruz had gone “over the line” in offering such suppositions.
“To question, in essence, whether somebody is a fellow traveler with another country, I think, is taking it too far,” Nelson said. He said such a suggestion goes beyond the “degree of comity and civility that this committee has always been known for.”
By tradition, the party not occupying the White House doesn’t subject Cabinet-level positions to a filibuster threat.
In only two 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.
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.
Iraq Surge Issue
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 earlier 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.”