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Defense Secretary Nominee Hagel Faces More Hurdles in Bid for Nomination

February 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Chuck Hagel's nomination as defense secretary was delayed when Senate Republicans called for a filibuster. Outgoing secretary Leon Panetta, due to leave his post Feb. 14th, will stay until his successor is confirmed. Jeffrey Brown has the latest with Time Magazine’s Mark Thompson and Public Radio International's Todd Zwillich.
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JEFFREY BROWN: There were more hurdles today for Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s secretary of defense nominee. Late this afternoon, Senate consideration of his appointment was delayed on a procedural vote of 58-40. At this point, the Senate won’t vote on him again until February 26 at the earliest.

Margaret Warner has the story.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.: There has never in the history of the country been a filibuster of a defense secretary nominee, never.

MARGARET WARNER: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid went to the Senate floor this morning and blasted Republicans for blocking a vote on Chuck Hagel for the Pentagon’s top job.

HARRY REID: This isn’t a high school getting ready for a football game or some play that’s being produced at a high school. This is — we’re trying to confirm somebody to run the defenses of our country.

MARGARET WARNER: Democrats hold a 55-45 edge in the Senate, but it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster, meaning five Republicans would have had to break ranks to make that happen.

But partisan divisions were on display Tuesday, as the Armed Services Committee approved the Hagel nomination on a straight party-line vote 14-11. That followed a contentious hearing in January, as Hagel’s former Republican colleagues attacked him on several fronts, including his criticism of the U.S. troop surge in Iraq.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: Were you correct or incorrect when you said that the surge would be the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam? Were you correct or incorrect, yes or no?

CHUCK HAGEL, Defense Secretary Nominee: Well, I’m not going to give you a yes-or-no answer.

MARGARET WARNER: On Sunday, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said he would put a hold on Hagel and on John Brennan’s nomination as CIA director until he gets more answers from the White House about the September attack in Benghazi, Libya.

In a statement today, White House spokesman Josh Earnest reaffirmed President Obama’s support for Hagel. He said: “It does not send a favorable signal for Republicans in the United States Senate to delay a vote on the President’s nominee — a nominee who is a member of their own party — to be the secretary of defense.”

MAN: The motion is entered.

MARGARET WARNER: Late today, Reid forced a vote on breaking the filibuster. The effort failed.

Current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who’d been due to leave his post today, has said he will stay on until his successor is confirmed.

And late today, President Obama said the filibuster was unfortunate to have had politics intrude while he’s still presiding over a war in Afghanistan.

To help us sort through what happened today, the politics and implications, we turn to Pentagon reporter Mark Thompson of “TIME” magazine and Todd Zwillich of Public Radio International’s “The Takeaway.”

Welcome back, gentlemen.

Todd, begin with you.

Decode for us what happened today. I mean, the Republicans had told Harry Reid they had the votes to block the nomination or block consideration of the nomination, yet he forced it to a vote in the afternoon anyway. Why? TODD ZWILLICH, WNYC Radio: He did.

Well, there are different imperatives floating around all corners of this vote, as there often are in the Senate. Opposition to Sen. Hagel has mounted since before he was even named, and almost all of that opposition, except for token opposition, came from within his own party.

Building up to today, it was a question of, would Republicans require 60 votes to move forward with this nomination? Not unprecedented for a Cabinet nominee, but Harry Reid was right. It is unprecedented for a secretary of defense, for any national security nominee at the top level, for that matter.

As it got closer to the vote, then the question became, would Democrats be able to peel five Republicans to get to 60? And if not, are Republicans going to stick by their guns and make this a real filibuster, meaning we’re going to withhold 60 votes, we’re not going to let five of our people go, and we are going to try to make sure that Chuck Hagel goes down?

As the morning into the afternoon progressed, more and more Republicans, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, were coming out of a meeting with Republicans saying, we’re satisfied in the case of McCain and Graham, with the answers we got about Benghazi from the White House. We’re satisfied now. But we don’t think that other senators have had enough time. They’re not on the Armed Services Committee, so we are going to vote to hold this up now.

When we come back in 10 days, we will vote yes. This is not a question of blocking. We just want to slow down.

MARGARET WARNER: But why? What were the motivations here? On one hand, you have Reid taking it to a vote where he — pretty much was predicted he would lose, and you have Republicans saying, as you said, yes, we will vote for it in another 10 days, but not now. What are the politics here?

TODD ZWILLICH: Well, on the Republican side, the politics have shifted from the center of the three amigos on national security, they call them, Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Senator Kelly Ayotte from New Hampshire.

It’s shifted away from them now. They had a lot of questions about Benghazi, which, as you know, had been a major political issue since before the election. They’re still drumming at that. Those seem to be moving off the table now. There are senators on the right who are asking questions about Chuck Hagel’s speeches over the years. What did he say in these speeches? Did he give more incendiary statements about Israel, about the Jewish lobby in Israel controlling the State Department, statements preferable to Iran?

Those are questions. On the Democratic side, quickly, why did Harry Reid go ahead with this vote when he didn’t have to? Harry Reid and Democrats get to spend the next 10 days saying that Republicans are mounting unprecedented filibusters against the secretary of defense, that they are rolling hand grenades into the Senate, and that they just won’t cooperate with Barack Obama.

MARGARET WARNER: Helps them make that point.

So, Mark, how does this look over at the Pentagon, to the folks you are talking to there?

MARK THOMPSON, “TIME”: Well, certainly, number one, it looks terrible to people overseas.

Inside the Pentagon, they are consumed right now with the sequester, the looming $500 billion dollars in budget cuts. They don’t need this monkey wrench thrown into the works. Hagel has a lot of support in the Pentagon, but there’s some leeriness. He didn’t do very well at his confirmation hearing, and there is blood in the water and the Republicans sense that. And they’re moving in for the kill.

Basically, I think what’s happening and what happened today is the sense that this is another 10 days for drips, drips, drips to happen that could — could send his nomination into a tailspin. But, basically, the military’s professional. Ash Carter, the deputy, is a great guy.

Sec. Panetta, who spent some time this afternoon at Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, was hoping to say goodbye to some of the young men and women who had died in Afghanistan and Iraq, and then head to Monterey for keeps, will be coming back and in fact will be going to Brussels next week.

MARGARET WARNER: For the NATO ministers meeting.

You said there was some leeriness about — I think that was your word — in the Pentagon about Hagel and what kind of a defense secretary he would be. Based on what?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, based on the fact that he’s never run anything that is very large. This is a very big place.

Now, for those of who have been at the building for a while, you look back and you sort of say, boy, that Les Aspin, that chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, I bet he will be a great defense secretary. And he wasn’t. And that surprised people.

Conversely, people said, Dick Cheney? That fellow never served in the military. He can’t be defense secretary. Yet, by most accounts, people think he did a pretty good job. So it’s very difficult to anticipate how — what kind of job someone will do before they get there.

MARGARET WARNER: Is there also concern — there’s been some columns about this, including from Walter Pincus of The Washington Post — that his performance at the hearing made them wonder about — made men and women in uniform wonder how tough he’d be with — whether it’s adversaries or people on the Hill or counterparts overseas?

MARK THOMPSON: I talked to friends of Hagel’s who are surprised by the way the hearing unfolded. That’s not the Hagel they know.

And I think it truly was a warning shot across his bow. The next time he has an opportunity, assuming he gets an opportunity, to take somebody on, he’s going to take them on.

MARGARET WARNER: So, do you see it as Mark does, that the opponents of Hagel on the Republican side are hoping that in this 10 days that there may be more a steady drip, drip, that they still have in their sights trying to defeat him?

TODD ZWILLICH: There is an understanding on Capitol Hill that the next 10 days will be for the real staunch conservative opponents of Chuck Hagel to go through those speeches that I mentioned, go through some of his past statements — there are videos, more videos coming out — to look for more incendiary statements.

Now, so far, Chuck Hagel saying less-than-nice things about the government or Israel or the influence of Israel on our diplomats, that’s things — those are things that people in Washington do not like to hear, but they are not new. So, Hagel gets in if, over the next 10 days, as Lindsey Graham said a couple times today — unless there’s a bombshell over the next 10 days, I will vote to go ahead with this nomination and Hagel will get through, not with his vote, but Hagel will get through.

So then the question is, who’s going to look for the bombshell and will they find it?

MARGARET WARNER: And, Mark, you say — these people are professionals at the Pentagon. Still, the Pentagon is facing — one, they’re dealing with huge budget cuts already. They’re facing the potential of the sequestration, another $40 billion dollars or whatever in cuts, what to do about the Iranian nuclear program, contingencies for Syria.

I mean, does this uncertainty at all affect the building’s ability to not just make plans, but weigh in on the policy choices?

MARK THOMPSON: Sure, it does.

I mean, plainly, you want a secretary of defense, especially when you’re at war and especially when you have these other issues hanging over your head. No good can come from this ambiguity that we’re currently facing.

MARGARET WARNER: Mark Thompson, Todd Zwillich, thank you.

TODD ZWILLICH: Pleasure.

MARK THOMPSON: Thank you.