February 1, 2013

Chuck Hagel did not do well in his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Service Committee yesterday. In fact, it was a disaster. He seemed unprepared — inadvertently saying the Obama administration supports “containment” with regards to Iran — and unable to deal with the hostility of his former Republican colleagues. If you judged solely from the hearing, you’d think Hagel, as David Frum said on Twitter this morning, was “poorly prepared, easily pushed around, and prone to saying things he later regrets.”

Even still, odds are good he’ll be confirmed. As Chris Cillizza notes, Democrats are still on Hagel’s side, and unless they abandon the nomination, the only way Hagel will lose confirmation is if “Republicans choose to block his nomination.” This would be an unprecedented move. Most presidential nominees for most positions are confirmed by the Senate, and it takes misdoing or sizable, bipartisan opposition for a president to withdraw a nomination. This is even more true when it comes to the most high-profile cabinet positions — the president has wide discretion on his nominees for State, Defense or the Treasury.

Simply put, the Senate has never filibustered a cabinet nominee, and for good reason: Staffing the executive branch is a key job for the White House, and routine filibusters would make that an extremely difficult task, given the huge number of positions. Moreover, presidents win affirmation for their agenda from a majority of the (voting) public — giving wide leeway for nominations is a justified form of democratic deference.

Since the November elections, Republicans have tried to make up for their losses by heightening their opposition to President Obama. They’ve attacked nominees, pushed bogus scandals (Benghazi), and have tried their hands — again — at legislative hostage taking. If Senate Republicans break tradition and filibuster Hagel, it will be another sign that the GOP has committed itself to another four years of senseless opposition, in which blocking governance as an end in itself — rather than even trying to find common ground to make governing possible — will remain the norm.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.

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