Harry Reid finally gets tough on GOP obstruction. Will it last?

February 12, 2013

Moments ago, Chuck Hagel cleared the Armed Services Committee by a straight party line vote. Next up: A full Senate vote. Republican Senators continue to hint that they will obstruct the nomination, perhaps by “hold.”

So it’s good to see Harry Reid announcing that he will not, in fact, honor any Republican holds on Hagel’s nomination. Getting tough on GOP obstructionism is long overdue, particularly in the wake of the passage of weak filibuster reform.

To review: “holds” are not part of Senate rules or part of the Constitution. In fact, they are a relatively recent Senate development, designed by previous Majority Leaders in order to make all Senators’ lives a bit easier for an era in which most Senators don’t want to hang out on the Senate floor all the time. They are backed up by two things: the threat of a filibuster, and a desire for comity. As I argued yesterday, there was no good reason for Reid to respect any holds on Hagel. Reid is now doing the right thing.

Of course, this doesn’t mean Hagel’s confirmation is a certainty. Some Republicans continue to hint that they may even force a cloture vote. It’s an open question whether Hagel would get 60 Senators voting to end debate; he’d need a unified Democratic majority, and (perhaps even harder) a few Republicans.

In this context, John McCain continues to be the Senator to watch. He’s said repeatedly in the past that he opposes a filibuster of Hagel’s nomination. If that were to hold, there’s a good chance there wouldn’t be any cloture vote, since Republicans might as well just lose a final vote instead of forcing a procedural battle they would lose.

However, in a turnabout, McCain suggested today that he may vote against cloture after all. If he does, it might be very difficult indeed for Democrats to find the five other Republicans they need. And other Republicans are admitting that of course their “normal” filibuster is in play, meaning that Hagel will need 60 votes for cloture rather than just a simple majority for confirmation — even as they refuse to call it a filibuster.

“It’s not a filibuster. I don’t want to use that word,” Inhofe told Foreign Policy’s Cable blog. But he also said: “We’re going to require a 60-vote threshold.” Clear now?

Good for Harry Reid for planning to move this nomination rapidly, but it appears Hagel’s confirmation remains in limbo. Remember, no cabinet nominee has ever been defeated by filibuster. If Republicans really go through with this — and blockade even more executive branch nominations — Reid will have no choice but to revisit Senate rules reform.

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Greg Sargent | February 12, 2013