Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) challenged Republican senators Wednesday to launch a filibuster against President Obama’s nominee to lead the Pentagon, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).
Reid scolded Republicans for making the threat, and set up a vote to end debate on Hagel for Friday.
“This is 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. “What a shame.”
A few senators are also using Hagel’s nomination to demand answers from the White House about last year’s Benghazi, Libya, attack.
It is unclear whether Republicans can maintain a filibuster against Hagel, who appears to have support from the 55 senators caucusing with Democrats.
Republican senators said they were confident they had 41 votes to block a vote on Hagel’s nomination this week, even though two Republicans, Sens. Mike Johanns (Neb.) and Thad Cochran (Miss.), are on record as supporting Hagel. Several other GOP senators have said they are opposed to filibustering a Cabinet nominee.
“I think there are enough of us that believe there’s more information to receive from the administration, and I think there’s more benefit to waiting 10 days than there is to proceeding on in a hurried manner,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), however, said Wednesday that while she would vote against Hagel’s nomination, she would vote with the Democrats for cloture.
Whether Republicans will be able to successfully block Hagel’s confirmation this week is likely to be determined by senior Republicans who are concerned about the precedent such a move would set.
“If we can’t get reasonable requests fulfilled, it looks like I would vote against cloture,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), who previously had expressed opposition to a filibuster of Hagel. “Not because it’s a filibuster, but because we’re not getting cooperation. And I think we’ve got to have cooperation in these kinds of situations.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has also said he opposes a filibuster of Hagel, but told reporters Wednesday he was open to voting against cloture this week.
“I’ve said many times I won’t use a filibuster to deny a Cabinet member a seat, but I think we ought to take the time to give senators who have reasonable questions a chance to have those questions considered, and I don’t think we’re at that point yet,” Alexander said.
Another senator to watch is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has previously said that he was opposed to filibustering Hagel because it would set a “bad precedent.”
McCain said Wednesday that he would consider blocking a vote on Hagel unless the White House answered questions that he and Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) posed on Obama’s role responding to the Benghazi attack.
Graham has also threatened to block Hagel’s nomination over the outstanding questions.
“I will decide that [based on] whether I get the answer,” McCain told reporters Wednesday. Asked what he would do if he does not get a response, McCain said: “I’m not answering any ifs today.”
Democrats said they think they can win 60 votes.
“I’m optimistic there will be 60,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who rejected GOP requests to delay Tuesday’s committee vote over the requests for more financial documents.
Given Johanns and Cochran’s support for Hagel, and Collins’s opposition to a filibuster, one official close to Hagel said it was hard to see how a filibuster could be maintained.
“It’s almost inconceivable to think there aren’t two more Republicans who don’t believe the Senate should take the unprecedented step of filibustering a Defense secretary nominee,” the official said. “It’s a numbers game.”
Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who was one of the earliest opponents of Hagel’s nomination, hedged his bets Wednesday over whether Republicans had the votes to block Hagel this week.
“I’m not going to speculate about that move, but we’ll see,” Cornyn told The Hill.
Republicans took pains on Wednesday to argue holding up Hagel for more information wasn’t really a filibuster because they would eventually allow his nomination to be considered in an up-or-down vote.
Cornyn said Republicans weren’t filibustering because they were not trying to block the nomination, only to delay it because “there’s still a desire to get responses to the legitimate questions that have been asked.”
“When you deny cloture, that doesn’t mean that the nomination is doomed. It just means the debate will continue and there will be more time given to negotiate,” Cornyn told The Hill.
Levin, however, argued that any move to force a cloture vote would be a filibuster, which has never occurred for a Defense secretary nominee.
“If they require a cloture vote, that’s either a filibuster or the threat of a filibuster,” Levin said.
The filibuster fight is just the latest chapter in Hagel’s contentious nomination.
The Armed Services Committee held a raucous session on Tuesday before approving Hagel on a 14-11 party-line vote, in which Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) accused Cruz of “going over the line” with accusations about alleged connections that Hagel had with foreign governments.
Levin said Tuesday that Republicans were holding Hagel to a different standard than all previous Defense secretary nominees.
“We’re not going to single out one nominee for this kind of disparate treatment,” Levin said.
Published at 4:30 p.m. and updated at 8:28 p.m.