WASHINGTON - Republican senators delayed former Sen. Chuck Hagel's nomination to be President Barack Obama's next secretary of defense at least temporarily Thursday, in a bold, rare exercise of the Senate's power to block one of the president's choices for his cabinet.
Republicans denied they were rejecting Hagel's nomination, insisting instead that they need more time to get more information on last year's attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. Several took to the Senate floor Thursday and said that Hagel ultimately will be confirmed.
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The successful Republican effort to block a vote on Hagel leaves one of the most contentious nominations of the Obama presidency in limbo, although the White House expressed confidence that the former Republican senator would eventually win Senate confirmation.
Obama reacted immediately, accusing Republicans of playing politics with the nation at war.
Republicans had been blocking the confirmation of their former colleague and Vietnam veteran, saying they wanted more details from the White House on the events surrounding the attack on the US mission in Benghazi last September in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed. The attack became a topic of fierce debate before the November elections.
Hagel, a Republican, has already faced sharp questioning from his former colleagues over his past positions on Israel, Iran, Iraq and nuclear weapons.
The 100-seat Senate came up just two votes short of the 60 needed to move Hagel's nomination forward without delay, as lawmakers prepared to leave town for a week's break. Democrats hold a 55-45 edge in the Senate, which must confirm cabinet secretaries and other high-profile appointees.
Rejections are extremely rare. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the move by Republicans was unprecedented. He said the White House already responded on Wednesday to the Republicans' request for information about Benghazi.
Reid said it was "shocking" and "tragic" that the Republicans would attempt to block Hagel's nomination at a time when the US military is engaged in so many places around the world. "Not a single nominee for secretary of defense ever in the history of our country has been filibustered," he said in a speech on the Senate floor, referring to a delaying tactic.
If ultimately confirmed by the Senate, Hagel, 66, would take charge of the US armed forces at a time of turmoil. Automatic cuts to the Pentagon's budget are looming unless another bipartisan deal is reached, American troops in Afghanistan are being halved over the next year, North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon, Iran remains a threat in the Persian Gulf region, and Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Mali and Tunisia all are in a state of unrest.
'Significant decisions.' Obama and Hagel (Photo: MCT)
A full Senate vote on Hagel had been expected Friday after Reid filed a motion to end debate. Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander said it was Reid who provoked Republicans into the vote by scheduling it too soon. The Armed Services Committee had just approved the nomination two days before and Republicans were still seeking information from Hagel.
"This is a vote by Republicans to say, `We want more than two days after this nomination comes to the floor to carefully consider it because we have questions,'" Alexander said.
According to the Senate's historian, Donald Ritchie, just 5% of Cabinet nominees have been killed by the Senate or withdrawn when confirmation appeared impossible. It's far more common to reject judicial nominees, because "judicial appointments are for life and Cabinet appointments rarely last the full length of a presidential administration," Ritchie said.
Republicans want to know whether Obama spoke to any Libyan government official during the Sept. 11 assault and requested assistance for the American personnel at the mission.
The White House on Thursday said Obama did not speak to any Libyan government officials until the night after the attack. White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler sent a letter Thursday to three Republican senators saying former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf on Obama's behalf on Sept. 11 to coordinate additional support to protect Americans in Libya.
Ruemmler said Obama spoke to Magariaf on the evening of Sept. 12.
A White House official said there was no new information in Ruemmler's letter. Clinton's call to Magariaf has previously been made public. If there were a need to push the Libyans to do something, Obama would have called, but the Libyans were trying to do the right thing and were being as helpful as possible, the official said.
The official, discussing internal communications only on the condition of anonymity, said it wasn't clear that an earlier call from Obama to the Libyans would have been helpful in the deadly, fast-moving assault.
A bitterly divided Armed Services Committee on Tuesday voted to approve Hagel by a 14-11 vote, with all the panel's Democrats backing him. The committee's Republicans were unified in opposition to their onetime colleague, who will succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta if he's confirmed.
Panetta on Thursday said the struggle over Hagel is getting on his nerves. "The second-best Valentine's Day present would be to allow Sylvia and I to get the hell out of town," he quipped at a Pentagon award ceremony for Clinton.
The nomination of John Brennan as CIA director is also being delayed; the Senate Intelligence Committee is pushing off a vote amid demands that the White House turn over more details about drone strikes against terror suspects and about the Benghazi attacks. Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, said a vote likely will be postponed till late February.
A president's pick for a Cabinet post usually requires only a majority vote in the full Senate - not a supermajority of 60 votes - leading Reid to accuse Senate Republicans of blocking a nominee for defense secretary for the first time in the country's history.
But the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee challenged Reid's claim, saying it's not unusual to hold a Cabinet nominee to a 60-vote threshold. "This has happened (before), and it's happening again right now," said Sen. James Inhofe.
Sen. Carl Levin, the Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he's confident that the White House will supply the information Graham and McCain want and that Hagel will be confirmed.
The White House accused Republicans of putting "political posturing ahead of our nation's security," and added: "We have 66,000 men and women deployed in Afghanistan, and we need our new secretary of defense to be a part of significant decisions about how we bring that war to a responsible end."
Bill Kristol, a conservative Jewish editor who heads a pro-Israel group that is leading the battle against Hagel's nomination, told POLITICO that "the fight goes on." He vowed that he would "continue to work to convince a majority of senators of the undeniable truth that we can do much, much better than Mr. Hagel."