Published February 14, 2013
Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked -- for now -- Chuck Hagel's nomination to lead the Pentagon, marking the first time the chamber has successfully filibustered a Cabinet nominee.
Hagel failed to garner the 60 votes necessary to advance to a final confirmation vote. His nomination is still expected to be taken up at a later date, but Republicans mounted an unprecedented opposition, mostly over demands that the White House provide more information about the Libya terror attack.
Hagel was just shy of clearing the 60-vote bar. The final tally was 58-40, with one senator voting present. For procedural reasons, Democratic Leader Harry Reid switched his vote to "no" at the last minute -- a routine move that allows him to bring up the vote later on.
Some Republicans said Thursday that they would be willing to ultimately allow for an up-or-down vote -- which requires only a simple majority -- once they get more answers on Libya from the administration and once lawmakers return from recess. They return the last week of February.
"There are still questions outstanding," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on the floor, asking for "sufficient time" to get those answers.
President Obama, speaking later at a Google Hangout event, blasted Republicans and accused them of playing politics while the nation is at war. He said Hagel is "eminently qualified to be secretary of Defense" and predicted he would eventually be confirmed. Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is heading home to California Friday, but will remain the secretary until a successor is approved and sworn in.
The battle on the floor of the Senate Thursday was historic. The Senate has never successfully filibustered a Cabinet secretary before. Only two previous Cabinet officials required 60 votes before confirmation, and this has never happened for a Defense secretary nominee. Democrats hold a 55-45 edge in the Senate and have the numbers to confirm Hagel on a majority vote, if allowed to get to that point.
Republicans already are almost uniformly opposed to Hagel. But with the leverage of a 60-vote threshold, they are also demanding the White House provide more information about what Obama was doing on the night of the Benghazi terror attack.
Some Republican lawmakers predicted to Fox News that Hagel would ultimately get confirmed --- but it won't happen this week.
The White House provided Republicans some Libya details on Thursday, revealing that 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 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. The letter did not appear to smooth things over for the purposes of an immediate Hagel vote.
In pointed remarks, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Obama talked to the Libyan government "after everybody was dead" and suggested the president could have made a difference had he gotten directly involved earlier.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid blasted Republicans for the standoff.
"Chuck Hagel had nothing to do with the attack on Bengahzi," he said Thursday on the floor. "There are serious consequences to this delay."
U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died in the raid at the compound in Benghazi. Graham and others defended their interest in finding out more about what happened that night.
"There seems to not be much interest to hold this president accountable for a national security breakdown that led to the first ambassador being killed in the line of duty in over 30 years," Graham said. "No, the debate on Chuck Hagel is not over. It has not been serious. We don't have the information we need."
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.
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 others want and that Hagel will be confirmed.
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 Panetta if he's confirmed.
Hagel has faced intense opposition from Republicans, who have challenged his past statements and votes on Israel, Iran, Iraq and nuclear weapons.
Fox News' Chad Pergram and Mike Emanuel and The Associated Press contributed to this report.