WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans refused to allow a vote Wednesday on the nomination of Chuck Hagel to lead the Defense Department, staging the first filibuster against a president’s choice to head the Pentagon.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called the move “a shame” as he announced on the Senate floor that he was unable to reach an agreement with the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee to avoid such a delay. Reid filed a motion to end the filibuster and said he expected to vote on it Friday.
Only two Cabinet appointments have ever been filibustered, according to the Senate historian’s office. C. William Verity, President Reagan’s choice for Commerce secretary in 1987, faced a filibuster by conservative Republicans who said he was too soft on trade relations with the Soviet Union, and Dirk Kempthorne, George W. Bush’s nominee for the Interior Department in 2006, was briefly delayed by Democratic senators who objected to government policies on oil drilling. Both were confirmed easily.
The move to block Hagel’s confirmation was a rare step, but not a surprise. Although Hagel is a former Republican senator from Nebraska, he angered many GOP colleagues by opposing Bush’s Iraq war policies. His critics also say he has been too critical of Israel and not critical enough of Iran.
Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, rejected the notion that the delay was “unusual,” or was even a filibuster. He blamed the White House for the impasse, saying it had not responded to various Republican inquiries.
“I don’t remember one time when information that was requested that was perfectly within the purview of our interest in the confirmation was denied,” he said. “This is the part that is unprecedented.”
Democrats believe they have the votes to confirm Hagel. To do so will require that at least five Republicans join the 55 Democrats and independents to move to a final vote.
Only two Republicans have come out in support of Hagel’s nomination, but several more have indicated they would not support a filibuster. If those votes hold, Hagel would have the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, unless a surprise defection takes place from Democratic ranks. Some Democrats have not revealed their intentions — most notably Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, who initially expressed some reservations.
Also Wednesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she had postponed a vote expected as soon as Thursday on the nomination of John Brennan as CIA director.
Members of the committee had objected, Feinstein said without naming them. She said she hoped to schedule a vote on Brennan, the White House advisor on counter-terrorism, after a recess that ends Feb. 25.
Feinstein said committee rules allowed any member to delay a nomination vote. She also suggested that Brennan needed to satisfy requests for more information about September’s deadly terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, and about secret Justice Department memos on targeted killings.
The fight to confirm Hagel reached a boiling point Tuesday during a meeting of the Armed Services Committee after newly elected Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) suggested without offering evidence that Hagel might have received compensation from foreign entities. Democrats maintained that Hagel had complied with all the established disclosure protocols, and several admonished Cruz for his comment.
The committee reported Hagel’s nomination favorably on a party-line vote, 14 to 11.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), another Hagel critic, said his desire to delay the vote was not just about Hagel’s qualifications but about extracting more information about President Obama’s level of engagement after the raid in Libya, which killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
“We don’t have the information we need,” Graham said Wednesday. “And I am going to fight the idea of jamming somebody through until we get answers about what the president did personally about the Benghazi debacle.”
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Hagel’s chief ally in the Senate, said it was important to move quickly if senators were “to stay true to the traditions of this body and to the presumption that the president should be at least allowed to have his nominee voted up or down.”
The outgoing Defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta, was confirmed in 2011 by a vote of 100 to 0. In a final news conference Wednesday, the former California congressman said one of the chief disappointments of his tenure had been a deteriorating relationship with Congress.
“That bond is not as strong as it should be,” he said. “Oftentimes I feel like I don’t have a full partnership with my former colleagues on the Hill in trying to do what’s right for this country.”
Ken Dilanian in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.