OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Senate Republicans stonewall Hagel nomination

McCain, Graham and several other Republicans said they would vote for cloture when the Senate returned after next week’s recess.

“There’s a good many of us who believe tomorrow is ridiculous because he just came out of committee two days ago,” Graham said of ending debate on Hagel on this week. 

“But when we come back, I’d feel very comfortable, unless something really stunning comes out, to go to vote," he added. 

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Of course, the delay gives opponents of Hagel another week to try and stir up opposition to the Defense secretary nominee. Most Republican senators, however, said they thought he would eventually be confirmed, even if they opposed him.

Obama criticizes Hagel delay: President Obama weighed in on the Senate blocking Hagel after the vote Thursday while participating in a Google Plus Hangout.

He called the delay “unfortunate,” and said that Hagel was consistently praised by Republicans as a senator and “imminently qualified” to be Defense secretary.

Obama said that a 60-vote requirement was not the rule, even if it’s become common practice.

“It’s just unfortunate that this kind of politics is going on ... while I’m conducting a war in Afghanistan,” he said.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement after the vote that "for the first time in American history, Senate Republicans filibustered a nominee for secretary of Defense."

The White House and Pentagon had hoped that Hagel would have been in place in order to travel to Brussels next week for a NATO defense ministers meeting. Panetta’s last day at the Pentagon was Thursday, although he will remain on as Defense secretary until his successor is in place.

As a result, there’s a chance Panetta could be headed to Brussels next week, although a senior defense official said that was yet to be determined. Panetta had hoped he’d be out of the job by then.

“The second best Valentine's present would be to allow Sylvia and I to get the hell out of town at the end of the day,” Panetta said of himself and his wife at an event Thursday morning honoring former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

But Hagel was not the White House's only high-profile national security nominee to be put into question this week. 

Benghazi looms over Brennan bid: A trio of Senate Republicans on Wednesday cast further doubt on whether John Brennan can be confirmed as the new head of CIA. 

GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) all suggested Brennan's bid to become the nation's top spy could be brought to a halt if the White House does not disclose further details on last September's deadly assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. 

Specifically, the lawmakers want to know who was responsible for initially blaming last September's attack in Benghazi on a popular protest gone wrong. 

"That will be a subject that will be addressed" as the Senate considers Brennan's confirmation to become CIA chief, McCain told reporters on Thuesday. 

On Wednesday, Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein decided to postpone the panel's confirmation vote on Brennan, after committee members requested more information on Benghazi and the armed drone program. 

The California Democrat did ask for more information on the use of armed drones against terror suspects, particularly American citizens, but did not request details on Benghazi, according to a congressional source. 

When asked specifically if he or other Senate Republicans would filibuster the Brennan nomination, if he did not name names regarding the administration's Benghazi story, McCain replied sharply: "We are going to get that information." 

Days after the Benghazi attack, which ended with the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, administration officials blamed the strike on anti-American protesters.

Weeks later, White House leaders admitted the consulate attack was a coordinated assault by an al Qaeda-affiliated terror groups based in Benghazi. 

Brennan had been expected to clear the committee and be confirmed by the Senate despite the controversy over the Obama administration's drone strike program on American terrorist suspects overseas.

On Tuesday, Brennan testified during a classified session before Feinstein's panel on efforts to thwart al Qaeda and its affiliates across the globe, particularly the group's increasing presence in North and West Africa. 

The closed hearing was seemingly the final hurdle in the White House's plan to have Brennan become the head of CIA. 

Graham blocks CENTCOM nomination: In addition to Brennan, Graham also put the brakes on Army Gen. Lloyd Austin's bid to take over as Central Command's top officer on Wednesday. 

Austin, who is slated to replace outgoing commander Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, will not get a confirmation vote before the Senate Armed Services Committee until he provides the panel with his thoughts on the White House's postwar plan in Afghanistan. 

"I don't want to block" the committee's vote, Graham told Austin during the nominee's Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday. But the South Carolina Republican made clear that any progress on Austin's nomination hinges upon the general providing his assessment on the postwar plan to the panel. 

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) backed Graham's efforts to postpone the committee's confirmation of Austin's nomination. 

During the hearing, Graham pointed out the conflict between Austin and the White House over postwar troop levels during the U.S. drawdown in Iraq. 

Austin, who was the top American officer at the time of the Iraq withdrawal, suggested the Pentagon leave behind a 16,000-man force in Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal from the country in December 2011. 

The Obama administration, on the other hand, suggested a maximum of 10,000 U.S. boots on the ground in Iraq is all that would be needed to maintain security in the country and back up Iraqi security forces there. 

After the hearing, Graham told The Hill that he would vote to approve Austin's nomination, but said he wanted to make sure the same political calculations that created the disconnect between the administration and the Pentagon in Iraq would not be repeated in Afghanistan. 


In Case You Missed It: 

— Senate to take up Hagel vote again on Thursday

— Boehner won't weigh in on Hagel fight 

— Allen will drop EUCOM bid 

— GOP slams Obama on Libya terror attack


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