CAPITOL HILL— Senate Republicans have blocked a confirmation vote on President Barack Obama’s pick for U.S. defense secretary, former senator Chuck Hagel. The move effectively suspends consideration of the nominee for more than a week, and deepens controversy surrounding the president’s choice to lead the Pentagon.
This past Tuesday, Chuck Hagel received no votes of support from Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee. On Thursday, all but four Senate Republicans voted against ending debate in the chamber, dashing Democratic hopes for a swift final vote on the nomination.
Hagel would replace outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The Senate will be in recess next week, and Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid said another vote will be held when the chamber reconvenes. But Reid said the delay in confirming Hagel imperils the nation.
“No one knows what foreign challenge will face this country - perhaps - within the next 10 days. And it would be nice if we had a secretary of defense,” Reid said.
Secretary Panetta will retain the title until a successor is confirmed. Nevertheless, the White House issued a statement describing the delay as a “waste of time” that is “not without consequence.”
Republicans say they need more information from Hagel about his past statements and activities, and more time to consider his nomination.
“There are still questions outstanding. I believe senators have the right to have those questions answered,” said Senator John McCain said.
McCain and other Republicans say they will vote to proceed to a final vote after the Senate recess. But McCain says he does not support Chuck Hagel for defense secretary.
“Senator Hagel is an honorable man. However, his positions on the principal national security issues facing our country, the Iranian nuclear program, resurgent Islamist terror threat in North Africa and the Middle East, and more broadly, whether we should maintain our ability to project strength in defense of our interests and allies indicate a disqualifying lack of professional judgment,” McCain said.
“Chuck Hagel volunteered and enlisted in the United States Army during the Vietnam era. He was involved directly in combat, was given the Purple Heart [military award] for his service. So does Chuck hagel know what it takes to be a soldier? Does he know what it takes to lead the Department of Defense? He certainly does,” said Senator Richard Durbin.
Democrats add that using a procedural maneuver to block a vote on a defense secretary is unprecedented. Majority Leader Harry Reid:
“Republicans have made an unfortunate choice to ratchet up the level of obstruction here in Washington. Just when you thought things could not get worse, it gets worse,” Reid said.
Hagel has made controversial statements about Israel, and at his confirmation hearing misspoke about U.S. policy regarding Iran's nuclear program. Political analyst Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution says there is more to the drama surrounding Hagel.
“What is really going on here, in part, is that Hagel himself was a Republican senator who basically turned on the party over the war in Iraq and ended up favoring Barack Obama. Obviously the Republicans are doing damage to Hagel, as well as, I suspect, to themselves and the country,” Mann said.
While a three-fifth vote is required to end debate, only a simple majority is required to confirm a nominee. If Republicans hold true to their word and allow a final vote after the recess, Hagel’s confirmation would be all-but-assured in the Democratically-controlled Senate.