WASHINGTON, D.C. — On the eve of a Senate committee vote on Chuck Hagel’s nomination as defense secretary, a group of Republican senators continued Monday to threaten an unusual filibuster of a Cabinet appointment despite warnings from others in the party that it would set a bad precedent.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said he would insist on a 60-vote threshold to bring the nomination to a final floor vote, which has happened just twice before with Cabinet nominees. Inhofe denied that he was “anxious to try to string this out,” but said it was important for Hagel to face that higher threshold given the opposition.
“I’m entitled to it, and I’m sure there are many Republicans who want a 60-vote margin,” he said. “I feel a responsibility because of all the things we’ve been talking about to do what I can to see that Chuck Hagel is not confirmed as secretary of defense.”
At a private meeting Monday night, Sen. John McCain of Arizona—who was the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee until Inhofe replaced him—warned the panel’s other Republicans against delaying tactics. McCain said he has not decided whether he will vote for Hagel, a Republican and a former senator from Nebraska who was once a close friend and supporter.
“Someday, we will have a Republican president. Someday, we may even have a majority in the United States Senate,” McCain said afterward. “It sets, I think, a wrong precedent.”
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, announced Monday that he would call a vote on Hagel’s nomination this afternoon. He rejected the requests of Republicans, including Inhofe, for further delays. He said Hagel’s disclosures of financial and other information “far exceed the standard practices.”
Barring a surprise defection among the majority Democrats, Hagel should have the votes on the committee to move forward. But final confirmation could be delayed by his Republican opponents.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he would place a hold on Hagel’s nomination unless the White House answers further questions about a militants’ raid on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya on Sept. 11, 2012, in which four Americans were killed. Graham said he would send the White House another letter Tuesday seeking specific details about President Barack Obama’s actions once the president learned of the attack, and would tie Hagel’s nomination to Obama’s response.
According to a Senate historian, quantifying just how many Cabinet nominees have been filibustered is difficult because the opposition can take many forms.
But only twice in history has a Cabinet appointee faced a cloture vote in the Senate, or a 60-vote requirement to proceed to a final confirmation vote. Both were Republican nominations— C. William Verity Jr. by President Ronald Reagan to be commerce secretary and Dirk Kempthorne by President George W. Bush to be interior secretary. Both eventually were easily confirmed.
Graham said Democrats also blocked the nomination of John Bolton to be ambassador to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration. The U.N. ambassador is not part of the Cabinet, but the position is considered Cabinet-level.
“This is the way the system works around here,” Graham said, calling it his only leverage “against a White House who just basically won’t respond to anything.”
“My Democratic colleagues had no problem holding Bush’s feet to the fire in Iraq, and they should, quite frankly. But you got to play the game the same way.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, another senior Republican, said he too had concerns about Hagel and the raid in Libya. He said some in his party are worried that Obama “is appointing second-tier yes people.”
“In the case of Sen. Hagel, a lot of them feel like he’s being appointed because he’ll cut back on the military at a time we need to be strong,” Hatch said.
But Hatch said he would not filibuster the nomination.
“I haven’t been an enthusiastic filibusterer of Cabinet appointments, ever. So I start out with the idea that he shouldn’t be filibustered,” Hatch said.