In-depth briefing

The Chuck Hagel filibuster: What do Republicans want?

The GOP is demanding 60 votes to move forward on Obama's defense secretary nomination, but won't use the "F" word

"Republicans don't want to filibuster Chuck Hagel's nomination to be the next secretary of defense," says Rachel Weiner at The Washington Post. "They just want to require a 60-vote threshold to end debate on his confirmation." Got it? On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) filed for cloture, or a motion to end debate and move to a vote on confirming the Nebraska Republican, starting the clock for a Friday showdown — and a Saturday vote, if Reid gets the 60 ayes to end debate — right before the Senate adjourns for a weeklong recess.

"This is the first time in the history of our country that a presidential nominee for secretary of defense has been filibustered," Reid said on the Senate floor, after Republicans wouldn't agree to an up-or-down vote. "What a shame, but that's the way it is."

It's worth noting that no presidential Cabinet nominee has ever been successfully filibustered — though two had to (easily) overcome 60-vote thresholds, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne in 2006 and Commerce Secretary C. William Verity in 1987 — and that Republicans insist this isn't a filibuster. "We're going to require a 60-vote threshold," Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) tells Foreign Policy. But "it's not a filibuster. I don't want to use that word." Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has said he won't filibuster the nomination, now says he'll support blocking a vote on Hagel — though he believes "a filibuster is a bad precedent," according to a spokesman.

So if it's not a filibuster — and most legislative experts say it is — what are Republicans doing? They say they are merely delaying the vote, or putting a "hold" on the nomination, using what leverage they have to get information out of an unresponsive Obama White House. Democrats are "are jamming the vote," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tells National Journal. "Our caucus believes that having cloture on Hagel this soon with this many unanswered questions and the administration stonewalling is inappropriate by Harry Reid."

Here's how Politico's Manu Raju and Tim Mak read the situation:

Senate Republicans see the writing on the wall: Chuck Hagel will get his job at the Pentagon.... But that doesn't mean they won't drag out the proceedings to extract every possible concession they can get and weaken the nominees and the White House in the process. Harry Reid knows this and has had enough.... If Reid can find five Republicans to join the 55 members of the Democratic Caucus, the Senate could approve Hagel quickly.... But if he can't, the White House could be forced to recalibrate its strategy as the nomination drags out into late February. And that could give the GOP more time to mount opposition to Hagel's nomination. [Politico]

So why not just mount a filibuster? "My theory?" says David Weigel at Slate. Many Republicans "are cool to the idea of an 'unprecedented filibuster' of a Cabinet-level nominee."

But if they can reframe the filibuster as something else — if it's merely a delay, and they can talk about approving him later — well, then, they get the recess to beat him up (or completely fail to beat him up, as happened this weekend) or beg the White House for more, more, more... information. [Slate]

That's essentially McCain's new pitch. "I've always said I just want an answer to the question," he tells CNN. "We deserve answers before we move forward with nominees. That's been the standard I've pursued for the past 26 years."

What exactly do Republicans want? There are at least three camps.

First there's what Slate's Weigel calls the "ad hoc Filibuster Hagel Until We Get Benghazi Facts caucus." The key member is McCain, because other Republicans look to him for guidance on military issues. But the most active member is Graham. The question McCain refers to above was submitted to the White House this week by McCain, Graham, and the third charter member of the caucus, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.): Did Obama personally call Libyan officials on the night of Sept. 11, 2012, to request help for the under-assault U.S. diplomatic mission?

Until he gets that information, Graham says to Obama, "I'm gonna hit you and keep hittin' you! You're not going to get away with not answering basic questions." McCain says he's optimistic the White House will send over some new information before Friday's vote, but so far the White House hasn't been "treating Graham's constant requests with great seriousness," says Weigel. "There's just no confidence that it can deliver anything to him that would stave off additional threats."

The second group is demanding more information about Hagel's finances, including more information about who has paid him to give speeches. Democrats say that Hagel has turned over at least the same amount of financial information as previous nominees, but some Republicans in this camp suggest that Hagel may have a hidden conflict of interest. Regarding $200,000 that Hagel earned over two years from Corsair Capital, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) asked, rhetorically, if any of the money "came directly from Saudi Arabia, came directly from North Korea. I have no evidence to suggest that it is or isn't," he added, but it would be "relevant to know."

"There's nothing unusual about this" request for more financial disclosure, said Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, on the Senate floor Wednesday. "I don't want to string this out. I have places to go other than hanging around here. I'd vote tonight if we could just get the information that has been requested by the Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee."

Finally, there are the Republicans who "say they'll filibuster him just because they want to stop him," says Slate's Weigel. That faction includes Cruz, who said he opposes Hagel in part because of "Iran formally and publicly praising the nomination of a defense secretary," and Inhofe, who defended Cruz's critique, saying that Iran has "endorsed" Hagel and "you can't get any cozier than that." Other Republicans, like Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), don't like some of the speeches Hagel has given, and want to find others they think will make him toxic to a majority of senators, or at least 41 of them. "There is a 60-vote threshold for every nomination," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) tells Foreign Policy.

The big question, then, is whether 41 of the 45 Senate Republicans will support the move to at least delay the nomination — in other words, the filibuster. Republicans seem pretty confident they have the votes. "I think we will hold the line if there's a vote this week," Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) tells Politico. But few people, including Thune, think Republicans can keep Hagel from eventually winning confirmation. "I think in the end, ultimately he'll get his vote."

So, what's the point of this exercise? The last word goes to Slate's Weigel:

Republicans don't have the votes to kill the Hagel nomination, and are trying to cobble together the votes to delay it and coax more information out of the White House. If you read an apocalyptic headline like "GOP FILIBUSTERS HAGEL," it will be true, technically, and Democrats want that story out there.... The Democrats' best weapon is shame. And the Republicans' best weapon, as they wait for more Benghazi info or some miracle dirt on Hagel, is embarrassment. They make this as difficult as possible for Obama. [Slate]


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