Senate Republicans on Thursday stalled the nomination of former GOP senator Chuck Hagel as the nation’s next defense secretary over unrelated questions about President Barack Obama’s actions in the aftermath of the deadly raid on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya. Democrats called the vote “tragic” and vowed to revive the nomination after Congress’s weeklong break.
By 58-40, with one abstention, the Senate fell short of the 60-vote threshold required to advance Hagel’s nomination to a final up-or-down vote on his confirmation. Four Republicans voted with Democrats to end the debate and proceed to a final vote — senators Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine and Mike Johanns of Nebraska.
President Barack Obama reacted immediately, accusing Republicans of playing politics with the nation at war.
At the last minute, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) switched his vote from yes to no, a procedural move that allows him to revive the nomination after the break. He set the vote for Feb. 26.
“Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, it gets worse,” the Democratic leader lamented.
The GOP 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 senator would eventually win Senate confirmation.
Republicans had been blocking the confirmation of their former colleague until they received information from the White House on when Obama contacted Libyan officials after the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi last September in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
The White House responded to that request earlier Thursday, saying Obama spoke with Libyans a day after the attack. Sen. John McCain of Arizona led the opposition to Hagel’s confirmation, but he said he would not object to the test vote, called cloture.
Reid said it was “shocking” and “tragic” that the GOP would attempt to block Hagel’s nomination at a time when the U.S. 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.
A full Senate vote on Hagel had been expected Friday after Reid filed a motion to limit debate. While Democrats hold a 55-45 edge in the Senate and have the numbers to confirm Hagel on a majority vote, they needed the support of five Republicans. In the end, they only got four.
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.
Republicans accused Democrats of setting up a test vote Thursday they knew would fail so the president’s allies could paint the GOP as obstructionists during the Presidents Day break.
“We could have worked this out,” said Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.