With GOP Filibuster, Chuck Hagel’s Rocky Road Continues

It is the third time in Senate history a Cabinet nominee has been filibustered. But Hagel still has a chance to become the next Defense Secretary.

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Former U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel arrives for a meeting with U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 7, 2013.

Senate Republicans filibustered President Barack Obama’s nominee to be the next Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, by a razor thin vote of 58-39 Thursday, with one senator voting present. But all hope for Hagel is not lost. Just because they still want more time to debate their former Republican colleague’s nomination, doesn’t mean that Hagel’s confirmation is dead.

At least three Republican senators – John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Richard Burr – said that they simply want more time and intend to vote for cloture – a parliamentary procedure that ends a filibuster by limiting debate to 30 hours that requires a supermajority of 60 votes – when the Senate returns from recess the week of Feb. 25. “I will oppose cloture because debate should continue and when we get back – unless there is a bombshell – I’ll vote for cloture and move on to his nomination,” Graham said on the floor of the Senate on Thursday.

(MORE: Hagel’s Hearing: Profoundly Depressing)

The key in Graham’s statement is the “bombshell.” Republicans still hoping to kill Hagel’s nomination will surely spend the next week combing over his past speeches looking for just that. Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, has been demanding that Hagel disclose more information about the speeches he’s given since leaving office in 2009. One potential hurdle seemed to emerge early Thursday in reports that Hagel at one time called the State Department “an adjunct to the Israeli Foreign Minister’s office” in a 2007 speech at Rutgers University. Jewish groups immediately called on Hagel to explain himself.

But the biggest challenge to Hagel’s confirmation has had little to do with his fitness for the job but with McCain and Graham’s demand that the White House provide more documents on the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack. The duo said earlier Thursday that they would filibuster Hagel until the White House produced those documents. After the Administration responded, the senators said they were mollified. “”I think it was an adequate response, yes,” McCain told reporters on Capitol Hill. “We are working on and having negotiations now trying to smooth this thing out and get it done.”

Benghazi has been an ongoing sore spot between the White House and Republicans. Graham, McCain and Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, are also delaying the confirmation of John Brennan to head the Central Intelligence Agency until the White House answers their questions about who changed U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s talking points on the Sunday shows five days after the attack. Rice, working off talking points, said the attack, which turned out to be the work of al Qaeda-like terrorists, was simply a protest gone awry. Republicans furiously accused the Administration of trying to cover up its failure to adequately fight the war on terror and to protect American lives.

(MORE: Susan Rice Bows Out from Secretary of State Consideration)

Democrats argue that both chambers have held multiple hearings and all questions answered multiple times. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in responding to GOP Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin three weeks ago on a hearing on Benghazi, grew exasperated: “What does it matter any more?” she demanded. Indeed, after demanding that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta testify on Benghazi – Graham’s ransom for not holding up Secretary of State John Kerry’s confirmation vote – the subject seems to have been so exhausted that McCain turned to asking about Syria. All of the news that day focused on Syria – not Benghazi. And polls show the public has a waning interest in spending much more effort rooting out who’s to blame – beyond the terrorists themselves – for the death of four Americans that day, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Hagel actually got 59 votes, with four Republicans voting for him, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid changed his vote last minute so he could bring the nomination back up again, which he said he would do on Tuesday, Feb. 26. One senator, Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, voted present reflecting his long friendship with Hagel. If and when Hagel does manage to get cloture and end the debate on his nomination, he is expected to easily pass the Senate, which Democrats control with 55 votes.

Filibustering a cabinet nominee is rare: it’s only happened twice in Senate history. The first time was in 1987 when Ronald Reagan nominated C. William Verity to be Commerce Secretary. He eventually passed 84-11. And the second came when George W. Bush nominated former Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne to be Secretary of the Interior in 2006. He was ultimately confirmed by voice vote – meaning no one opposed him. That said, more often Presidents withdraw a nominee who’s in trouble, as has happened 11 times in Senate history. Nine presidential nominees have been brought down by failed voted in the Senate, the last being John Tower, George H. W. Bush’s nominee to be Defense Secretary in 1989 by a vote of 47-53. Tower had an abysmal confirmation hearing, which lost him support.

Hagel, too, had a terrible confirmation hearing; even Administration officials acknowledged was a poor performance. A few times Hagel got the Administrations policy wrong. Once he had to be corrected by Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, that Obama’s policy towards Iran is prevention, not containment. But given the Democratic majority in the Senate, and the fact that Hagel is so close to having the votes, it would do more political damage at this point to withdraw Hagel and nominate someone else. So, however long it takes, Democrats are pushing ahead, and hoping no more “bombshells” emerge in the next 12 days.

MORE: Can Chuck Hagel Overcome?