User's manual on potential roadblocks to Hagel’s nomination

There is a great amount of skepticism surrounding the confirmation of former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel as Leon Panetta's successor as Defense secretary.

There was not a single statement from any senator, Democratic or Republican, who was dubious about Hagel who believed Thursday's hearing helped his cause.

The only lawmaker asserting anything positive was Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., who said Thursday that Hagel "advanced his cause."

But here's the parliamentary problem for Hagel.

Most garden-variety bills in the Senate create two opportunities to filibuster: The motion to proceed to the measure (to actually call up a bill for debate) and to end debate. If there's a single objection or any other filibuster, the Senate must invoke cloture twice (requiring 60 votes) to proceed to a final vote.

But most nominations, including those for secretary of Defense, are what the Senate terms as "privileged." That means they can go straight to the front of the legislative line, and do not have to run through the first filibuster trap of 60 votes.

The only place to block the nomination, then, is on ending debate and advancing to the final vote.

That helps Hagel a little bit. But not much. He still may need to clear at least one hurdle of 60 votes to advance to a final confirmation vote which only needs a simple majority.

"I can't imagine there will not be at least one senator objecting to going to a final vote," said one senior Senate aide close to the confirmation process. "I suspect he's confirmed. But it'll be a squeaker."

In other words, it is more than likely that at least one senator -- if not a group of senators -- decides to object in going to a final vote. That means Hagel supporters would have to round up 60 to skip to the final vote.

And that is a tall order.

It is tradition that senators often give a president great latitude on their Cabinet nominees. They may vote no. But they won't filibuster. It's just not "senatorial."

Still, many have invoked the model of former Sen. John Tower, R-Texas, whom Bush 41 nominated as Defense secretary in 1989. Many thought this would be a lay-up, considering how the Senate traditionally treats its brethren. But Tower's nomination blew up. Bush then nominated then-House Minority Whip Dick Cheney.

The Tower nomination is one of the recent anomalies in the Senate where the chamber torpedoed the nomination of one of its own.

The Senate, in its history, has officially defeated nine Cabinet nominees, including Tower.

In 1959, President Eisenhower nominated Lewis Strauss to become Commerce secretary only to be blocked by the Senate. Interestingly, this unfolded just as Allen Drury's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Advise and Consent" hit the bookshelves. The title is derived from Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution which grants the Senate the power to "advise and consent" the president on various positions, ranging from Supreme Court justices to ambassadors to cabinet officials.

The Senate first defeated a Cabinet nomination in 1834 when it voted against President Andrew Jackson's nomination of Roger Taney to become Treasury secretary.

The kiss of death seemingly was to be nominated for a Cabinet post by President John Tyler. Tyler assumed the presidency after the untimely death of President William Henry Harrison, just a month into his term. That helped trigger legendary struggles with Congress, which in fact crafted the first-ever writs of impeachment against Tyler.

As a result of his tangles with the legislative branch, four of the nine Cabinet nominations ever defeated by the Senate came during Tyler's watch. The Senate defeated Caleb Cushing for Treasury, David Henshaw for Navy (when that was a Cabinet department), James Porter for War (later to become Defense) and James Green for Treasury.

The bottom line is that formal Cabinet nominations are not rejected often. What is even more rare is defeating the nomination of a former senator, such as Tower. In fact he is the only one to be voted down. 

Filibusters on lower-level nominations are more common.

There is one school of thought that the Senate will revert to its old, traditional clubby ways and not try to block Hagel.

However, it is a new day in the Senate. It's stocked with Tea Party loyalists like Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; Ron Johnson, R-Wis.; Mike Lee, R-Utah; and Rand Paul, R-Ky. They don't do things like the "old" Senate. All one needs to do is look at how many Republicans (including both Senate GOP leaders Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn) voted no Thursday on the HOUSE REPUBLICAN-crafted bill to suspend the debt ceiling.