WASHINGTON – Efforts to confirm Chuck Hagel as the nation’s new secretary of Defense hit another roadblock Thursday, with Senate leaders saying a vote to move forward with his nomination could be delayed in the face of a “full-scale filibuster” on the part of Republicans.
The White House had been pushing to get Hagel confirmed before a scheduled meeting next week of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, where plans for Afghanistan will be among the topics of discussion. White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with the president in Georgia that it was “unconscionable” that Republicans were holding up Hagel’s confirmation ahead of the meeting.
“We need our new Defense secretary to be there,” Earnest said. "It does not send a favorable signal for Republicans in the United States Senate to delay a vote on the president's nominee,” he added. “It's difficult to explain to our allies exactly why that's happening.”
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That goal seemed increasingly at risk as Republican leaders indicated they would block a vote that had been planned for Friday. The Senate is on recess next week.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid blasted Republicans for making one “outlandish request” after another to justify blocking a vote on their former Senate colleague, calling the situation “unprecedented.”
“It’s shocking that my Republican colleagues would leave the nation without a fully-empowered secretary of Defense during all the things we have going on in the world, including a war,” Reid said on the Senate floor Thursday morning.
Republicans maintained they simply want more time to consider the nomination, suggesting they would be ready to vote once the Senate returns after the Presidents Day break.
Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said the Senate should not rush the vote on Hagel just two days after he won approval from Senate Armed Services Committee, noting it took 87 days for his own confirmation as Education secretary under then-President George H.W. Bush.
“It’s premature,” he said. “That’s not a filibuster.”
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Republican senators have made two different sets of demands for more information before voting on Hagel. Some have asked for more detail on speeches Hagel may have given over the years. Others have said they would not go forward to a vote on Hagel unless the White House provides more information on President Obama’s actions and conversations related to the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya in Benghazi last fall.
The White House moved Thursday to answer some of the requests. In a letter to Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler detailed efforts that senior administration officials had made to discuss the case with the Libyan government in the days after the attack, while noting that the administration has provided “extensive” information about the attack.
The three senators confirmed that they had received the letter, and Republican senators were discussing it at their weekly lunch Thursday.
Reid said such requests were just stonewalling, coming after the White House answered previous requests for information, including in-person testimony from Panetta and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“For the sake of our national security, it’s time to put aside this political theater -- and that’s what it is: People concerned about primary elections,” Reid said.
Democrats continue to insist they have all 55 votes in their caucus to move forward. Two Republicans have said they would vote to confirm Hagel, while several others indicated that while they opposed Hagel’s nomination, they would not support a filibuster. But at least some of those Republicans may be unwilling to buck fellow party members and end the filibuster right for now.
The current secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, is set to leave Washington on Thursday as he ends his nearly 20-month tenure at the Pentagon.
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Staff writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.