Senate to Hagel: Come back next week

Chuck Hagel’s very troubled path to the head of the Defense Department reached another impasse Thursday afternoon as the full Senate failed to end debate and bring his nomination to a vote. In a tense vote on the Senate floor, Democrats and Republican supporters of Hagel failed to muster the necessary 60 votes to bring the nomination to a vote. The cloture measure gained only 58 votes in favor, with 40 against. Three Republicans ??? Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski ??? voted with the Democrats for cloture.

However, Hagel’s nomination will get another bid in the Senate after next week’s President’s Day break, and a critical number of GOP senators say they will vote for cloture at that time and allow the vote to go forward. Hagel is expected to pass in the general vote, as 55 Democrats along with Cochran and Johanns have signaled that they will vote to confirm him.

In comments on the Senate floor Thursday, three Hagel opponents, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) reaffirmed their opposition to Hagel’s appointment but indicated they would vote for cloture after the recess. McCain and Graham say they will in the meantime be looking for more information on Hagel’s nomination and related matters.

“Unless there is some explosive bombshell, I intend to vote for cloture,” Graham announced from the Senate floor. “But the debate time is not over for Sen. Hagel. The week time period should give us time to answer these questions.”

At issue now is what the GOP can get out of its filibuster on Hagel, who ran afoul of Senate Republicans over his views on Israel, Iran, the 2006 surge strategy in Iraq and the defense budget. A Vietnam veteran and former Republican senator from Nebraska, Hagel has unexpectedly turned out to be President Obama’s most controversial cabinet nominee.

Opposition to his nomination only heated up after Hagel’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in January, a grueling eight-hour session during which Hagel appeared hesitant, slow to respond and occasionally self-contradictory. At one point, Hagel had to revise an earlier statement he had made in favor of a policy of containment of Iran. Containment is not part of the U.S. Iran policy. Challenged by Graham to name a Senator who had been intimidated by the Jewish lobby, Hagel seemed to back down, and the emotional grilling by many Republicans apparently left him fazed.

But the focus of the filibuster has now shifted from Hagel’s qualifications per se to broader questions about Obama administration foreign policy and Hagel’s own actions during the confirmation process.

Graham, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and other Republicans have voiced their intention to hold up Hagel’s nomination in order to pressure the White House to cough up details about the lethal September 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya and answer questions about Hagel that have surfaced since his widely criticized testimony.

Republicans are looking for more information on the nominee’s financial records as well as speeches Hagel delivered in recent years but failed to disclose to the Senate. Fox News reported Thursday that in a 2007 Rutgers University speech (which he was not required to disclose to the Senate) Hagel called the State Department an “adjunct to the Israeli Foreign Miniser’s office.” An address to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) ??? a group with a history of controversial statements on Israel ??? has piqued interest from Hagel opponents, and even a legislator who had been relatively favorable to Hagel, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said Wednesday night he is looking for more information on the nominee’s speaker fees.

The effort to leverage Hagel’s nomination for disclosures on the Libya attack ??? a strategy Graham calls “No confirmation without information” ??? appears to have yielded some results already. The White House Thursday made public a letter [pdf] it sent to McCain, Graham and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) affirming that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Libyan President Mohammed Magariaf on the night of the embassy attack. The letter explains that Obama himself did not call the Libyan president until the following night.

The delay of Hagel’s confirmation briefly created worries over the prospect that the United States might be left without a Secretary of Defense, but a White House spokesman earlier Thursday said outgoing Secretary Leon Panetta will remain in office until his successor is confirmed.

The two parties are now trading blows over whether the Hagel confirmation slog is valid congressional oversight or a delaying tactic aimed at gathering more negative information. Senate Republicans argue that they need more time for debate and deliberation, but they did not use up a 30-minute debate period Thursday. Democrats insist that Hagel has disclosed enough information already, despite the surfacing of Hagel’s undisclosed speeches and remaining questions about his finances.

The Senate will take up the Hagel nomination again a week from Tuesday.