Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., talks with reporters Feb. 14 before heading into the Senate chamber to vote against cloture on the confirmation of former Sen. Chuck Hagel to be the next Defense secretary at the U.S. Capitol. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans made an abrupt about-face Thursday on Chuck Hagel’s nomination to become U.S. defense secretary by signaling their intent to confirm him later this month — unless damning information is uncovered.
Democrats narrowly failed Thursday to move to a final vote, falling two votes shy of killing a Republican filibuster. But as morning turned into afternoon on Capitol Hill, it became clear GOP senators will stand aside when the nomination is brought up again on the Senate floor in less than two weeks.
Asked whether the GOP senators’ tactics were about Washington process or their desire to politically bruise President Obama, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, replied bluntly: “It’s always about the president.”
After working all week to derail the former Nebraska senator’s nomination, Republican senators streamed out of a luncheon meeting with a striking new tone. GOP senator after senator told reporters that barring, as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham put it, a “bombshell,” Democrats would get the 60 votes they need later this month to end an ongoing filibuster.
“I think most likely … when we come back, Chuck Hagel will be confirmed,” Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said. “Members have outstanding requests that they deserve to have answers to. Why rush this? Two days is not enough time for everyone to formulate their questions and get the documents back.
“I wouldn’t be in favor of a filibuster after the break,” Burr said.
GOP senators said the coming 10-day recess period (Feb. 16-25) should allow ample time to seek and obtain any additional information needed from Hagel and the White House.
“I think we will get that information,” Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said. “I think it’s appropriate to wait until we come back, and that gives us plenty of time to get further questions answered. I intend to vote for cloture [after the recess]. ... He would certainly get mine and a number of others.”
Earlier on Thursday, a pall was cast over Hagel’s nomination when Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid announced Senate Republican leaders had informed him they had secured enough of their own 45 members to sustain a filibuster.
That prompted Reid to declare a “full-scale filibuster” was underway, charging Republicans with seeking a never-ending amount of information with the goal of “killing” the nomination.
By midday, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s so-called “Three Amigos” — Republican Sens. McCain, Graham and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire — had a chance to review information provided by White House about the Benghazi, Libya, attack.
In a letter sent to SASC Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and obtained by Defense News, White House General Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler answered the Hagel-blockers’ most-desired question — for now — about the Obama administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack.
McCain told reporters the White House letter satisfied him because “it stated, plainly, that the president never spoke with anybody in Libya.”
At a press briefing later in the day, the trio said they sought answers about to whom Obama spoke on Sept. 11 — the day of the deadly attack — because they believe that had the president pressed U.S. and Libyan officials in the North African nation, a rescue team might have arrived in time to save the lives of at least two of the four Americans who died.
Once the “Amigos” had digested the White House’s letter and huddled with the entire GOP caucus during the closed-door luncheon meeting, the tone inside the Capitol suddenly changed. Reid left the room where the Republicans were meeting but declined to answer reporters’ questions.
Republicans emerged with a new strategy. They convinced Reid to bring a motion to the floor late Thursday afternoon calling for an end to debate on the Hagel nomination. If Reid would do that, and allow Republicans to vote it down, they signaled they would not block the nomination following next week’s planned recess.
Several sources said Reid likely will waste little time in taking Republicans up on the informal deal. “I expect Reid will bring it back to the floor on Feb. 26,” a senior GOP aide said, and Reid confirmed that plan later on the Senate floor.
Reid made good on his end of the unofficial pact, bringing a cloture motion to the floor Thursday afternoon. It was defeated, 58 in favor and 40 against.
In a major shift brought about by the White House letter, a senior Republican senator said his party might not even force Reid to file another debate-ending motion to pass and clear the way for a final vote.
“I think there’s a really good chance after the break there’s no cloture vote, and it’ll be a 51-vote threshold,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., an adviser to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
While Republicans were eager to cast a positive light on the maneuvering, their tactics just put more than 10 days back on the clock. That additional time will give them a better chance of uncovering something in Hagel’s record they could use to kill the nomination.
Earlier in the day, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a strong Hagel supporter, said he is hopeful Hagel will still be confirmed because “I’m an optimist.”
Thursday evening, the White House called on Republicans to “stop playing politics” and allow an “up or down vote.”
“A clear majority in the United States Senate supports Sen. Hagel’s confirmation, so today’s action runs against both the majority will of the Senate and our nation’s interest,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement. “This waste of time is not without consequence.
“With questions about the sequester looming over the Pentagon, our secretary of defense should be in place,” Carney said. “For the sake of national security, it’s time to stop playing politics with our Department of Defense, and to move beyond the distractions and delay.”