Senate Taking First Vote on Hagel Over Republican Opposit

The U.S. Senate will vote tomorrow on a Democratic-backed effort to cut off debate and force a vote on Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be defense secretary, as Republicans continued to demand more time.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said today on the Senate floor that he scheduled the vote because Republicans have engaged in “one stall after another” on Hagel, President Barack Obama’s choice to replace retiring Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Ending debate would require 60 votes in the Senate, where Democrats control 55 votes. A Democratic official said today the party was two votes short of winning on the so-called cloture motion. Republicans also have told Reid that they have enough votes to win the procedural fight, at least for now, according to a Senate Democratic aide. Both people asked not to be identified discussing the unofficial vote tallies.

It would be the “first time in the history of our country” that a nominee for defense secretary has been filibustered, Reid said yesterday.

Obama’s choice of Hagel, 66, has been challenged 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.

“I am shocked my Republican colleagues would leave the nation without a fully empowered secretary of defense during all the things we have going on the world, including a war,” said Reid, a Nevada Democrat. The Senate is scheduled to be on a break all of next week.

Risky Path

Reid has chosen a risky path in scheduling the vote to cut off debate while Republicans want to obtain more information from the Obama administration, said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.

“There are members who want more time to debate,” Stewart said.

Complicating matters, Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, has called for a delay until the White House explains 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.

Clinton’s Call

In a letter yesterday 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 in an interview today that he remained dissatisfied by Hagel’s failure to provide more financial disclosure, as demanded by some Republicans.

Accusing Democratic leaders of an “arrogance of power,” Graham said, “We’re not going to be rolled by these guys.” Still, Graham predicted Hagel ultimately will win confirmation “unless this something outstanding out there.”

‘Unconscionable’ Delays

The delaying tactics being used by Senate Republicans “are unconscionable, and they should end right away,” Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, told reporters traveling with Obama today to an event in Georgia.

Obama needs a new defense secretary confirmed quickly to deal with the potential impact of automatic spending cuts and prepare for a meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers next week in Brussels, Earnest said. It’s “difficult to explain to our allies” why the confirmation is being delayed, he said.

While Panetta has said farewell in departure ceremonies and press conferences, he also has said he will continue to serve until a successor is confirmed.

A party-line vote of 14-11 to confirm Hagel in the Senate Armed Services committee on Feb. 12 underscored the continued Republican resistance to Obama’s choice of the former Republican senator from Nebraska and decorated Vietnam War veteran. Some Republicans on the panel demanded more information on speeches Hagel has given and the financing of organizations he has worked with.

Cabinet Filibusters

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.

Before the Armed Services Committee vote, the panel’s chairman, Democratic Senator Carl Levin, said Hagel had explained or apologized for some of his more provocative past statements.

‘Broad Support’

“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,” Michigan’s Levin said.

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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