Senate Republicans block Hagel nomination for Defense secretary

Senate Republicans in a 58-40 vote Thursday blocked former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s (R-Neb.) nomination as Defense secretary from proceeding to a final up-or-down vote.

Four Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Thad Cochran (Miss.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Mike Johanns (Neb.)—  joined 55 Democrats and Independents in supporting the nomination. Sixty votes were needed to cut off debate, leaving Democrats one vote short.

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The final 58-40 tally reflected a no vote from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who switched his vote from yes to preserve his ability to bring up the nomination again.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) voted present and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) missed the vote.

Republicans said it was too early to clear Hagel’s nomination, but that they would consider allowing an up-or-down vote after the Senate returns to business on Feb. 25.

They blamed Democrats for rushing the vote and the White House for not providing additional information about Hagel’s compensation for paid speeches.

Reid scolded Republicans for holding up Hagel, saying it was the first filibuster of a Defense nominee in history.

Hagel seems likely to win confirmation eventually, but the delay highlighted the contentiousness of his nomination.

“I think it’s appropriate to wait until we come back,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “I think there’s plenty of time to have any further questions answered and I intend to vote for cloture then. … He’d certainly get mine and a number of others.”

Collins said after the vote she did not try to lobby her Republican colleagues to vote for cloture, but she did not want to filibuster his nomination because she believes the president should have deference in picking his Cabinet. Collins plans to vote against Hagel for Defense secretary.

Reid and the White House blasted Republicans for holding up the nomination, accusing them of playing politics at a time when a Defense secretary is sorely needed.

The current secretary, Leon Panetta, is headed back home for California on Thursday, though he will remain on as Pentagon chief until a new one is in place.

“These delaying tactics are unconscionable, and they should end right away,” White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One Thursday.

A White House official said that the delay would not stop Hagel’s confirmation.

“Senator Hagel is going to be confirmed, if not tomorrow then when the Senate returns from recess,” the aide told reporters.

President Obama, while participating in a Google Plus hangout, said the vote was “unfortunate.” He noted that Hagel had been consistently praised by Republicans as a senator and was “imminently qualified” to be Defense secretary.

Democrats were seeking to finish Hagel’s confirmation this week after he cleared the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday.

Republicans have demanded more information about speeches the nominee gave and his compensation for them. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) at a hearing this week suggested the speeches were given to extreme or radical groups, a statement some Democrats have criticized.

Other Republicans, including McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), had threatened to block Hagel because the White House wasn’t giving them the information they were looking for about the terrorist attack last year on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Democrats had hoped that a White House letter sent to Graham, McCain and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) on Wednesday might convince them to vote for cloture, but the senators stuck with their party.

“There’s a good many of us who believe tomorrow is ridiculous because he just came out of committee two days ago,” Graham told reporters. “But when we come back, I’d feel very comfortable, unless something really stunning comes out, to go to vote.”

Graham also blamed Democrats for forcing the vote on Hagel this week, saying they had delayed votes in the past on Bush administration appointees.

“Lousy of them — what a double standard,” Graham said. “I’m highly confident if the Democrats were in our shoes and you had a controversial nominee like this with outstanding information, that they would do at least what we’ve done, probably more.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) suggested that a cloture vote might not even be necessary after the recess, if no Republicans objected going straight to a final up-or-down confirmation vote.

He also felt that the White House would provide the “legitimate information” that GOP senators have been asking for.

“I think the legitimate information that’s been asked for will come,” Corker said. “Some people may have asked for things that are over the top — I don’t know that, by the way — but I think the legitimate requests will be answered.”

After a party lunch Thursday, GOP senators were nearly united in saying that the Senate was moving too quickly to confirm a controversial nominee.

“The bottom line is it’s premature for Sen. Reid to cut off debate today,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). “I have a little personal experience with this — I was nominated and it took 87 days between the time I was nominated and the time I was confirmed.”

Republicans have bristled at the notion they are filibustering Hagel’s nomination, and say he will almost surely be confirmed after the recess.

But Democrats say that Republicans are in fact taking the unprecedented step of filibustering a Defense secretary nominee.

“It is shocking that our Republicans colleagues would leave our nation without a secretary of Defense with all the things going on and when we’re in a war,” Reid said Thursday.

The White House had hoped Hagel would be in place after this week to attend a NATO meeting of defense ministers in Brussels next week. Now Panetta may take one more trip abroad before he retires back to California.

"We'll cross that bridge if we come to it," a senior defense official told The Hill.

This story was posted at 4:59 p.m. and updated at 5:51 p.m.