Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel testifies before the Senate Armed Services… (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated…)
WASHINGTON – On the eve of a Senate committee vote on Chuck Hagel’s nomination to lead the Pentagon, a group of Republican senators continued Monday to threaten what would be a historic filibuster for a Cabinet appointment despite warnings from others in the party that it would set a bad precedent.
Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) said he would insist on a 60-vote threshold, which has happened just twice before with Cabinet nominees. Inhofe denied that he was “anxious to try to string this out” but said it was important for Hagel to face that higher threshold given the opposition.
“I’m entitled to it, and I’m sure there are many Republicans who want a 60-vote margin,” he said. “I feel a responsibility because of all the things we’ve been talking about to do what I can to see that Chuck Hagel is not confirmed as secretary of Defense.”
But in a closed-door meeting Monday night, Sen. John McCain of Arizona -- who was the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee until Inhofe replaced him -- warned the panel’s other Republicans against any delaying tactics. McCain said he has not decided whether he will vote for or against Hagel, a Republican and a former senator from Nebraska who was once a close friend and supporter of McCain.
“Someday, we will have a Republican president. Someday, we may even have a majority in the United States Senate,” McCain told reporters afterward. “It sets, I think, a wrong precedent.”
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, announced Monday that he would call a vote on Hagel’s nomination Tuesday afternoon, hours before President Obama’s State of the Union address. He rejected the requests of Republicans, including Inhofe, for further delays. He said Hagel’s disclosures of financial and other information “far exceed the standard practices.”
Barring a surprise defection among the majority Democrats, Hagel should have the votes on the committee to move forward. But final confirmation could be delayed by his GOP opponents.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he would place a hold on Hagel’s nomination unless the White House answered further questions about the raid on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya on Sept. 11 that left four Americans dead. Graham said he would send the White House another letter Tuesday seeking specific details about President Obama’s actions after learning of the attack and would tie Hagel’s nomination to Obama's response.
The situation has revealed a divide between Republicans who want to preserve Senate traditions and those who want to use the situation to advance their political agendas.
According to a Senate historian, counting how many Cabinet nominees have been filibustered is difficult because the opposition can take many forms.
But only twice has a Cabinet appointee faced a cloture vote in the Senate, or a 60-vote requirement to proceed to a final confirmation vote. Both were Republican appointments -- C. William Verity Jr. by President Reagan to be Commerce secretary and Dirk Kempthorne by President George W. Bush to be Interior secretary. Both were eventually easily confirmed.
Graham said Democrats also successfully blocked the nomination of John R. Bolton to be ambassador to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration. The U.N. post is not formally part of the Cabinet but is considered a Cabinet-level position.
“This is the way the system works around here,” Graham said, calling it his only leverage “against a White House who just basically won’t respond to anything.”
“My Democratic colleagues had no problem holding Bush’s feet to the fire in Iraq, and they should, quite frankly. But you got to play the game the same way.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, another senior Republican, said he too had concerns about Hagel and the raid in Libya. He said some in his party are worried that Obama “is appointing second-tier yes people.”
“In the case of Sen. Hagel, a lot of them feel like he’s being appointed because he’ll cut back on the military at a time we need to be strong,” Hatch said.
But he said he would not filibuster the nomination.
“I haven’t been an enthusiastic filibusterer of Cabinet appointments ever. So I start out with the idea that he shouldn’t be filibustered,” Hatch said.
During the closed GOP meeting, McCain also sought to prevent a symbolic protest by some Republicans on the Armed Services Committee who were considering walking out when the vote was called.
A Republican aide said he believed that was now unlikely and said those who supported further delaying tactics were in the minority.
“There was limited support in the room for moving forward with the filibuster,” said to the aide, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. But he added: “Everybody was not there, and it only takes one member” to place a hold.