Why Republicans are filibustering Chuck Hagel

February 14, 2013

6:04 p.m. Update: Since we posted this item, the Senate held a vote to move forward with Hagel's nomination Thursday afternoon, and Republicans launched an unprecedented filibuster, preventing the chamber from moving ahead. Republicans predicted they would allow a simple majority vote later this month, which would virtually guarantee Hagel's confirmation, but only if they see more information about his record. 

Senate Republicans have decided -- against the Fix's counsel! -- to require Chuck Hagel to get 60 votes in order to be confirmed as the next Secretary of Defense.

(There is a fair amount of legislative gobbledygook,  involved in all of this, which we explained here, but the end result is that Republicans are using the filibuster -- or at least the threat of a filibuster -- against Hagel.)

With a potential vote on Hagel looming Friday, we surveyed a handful of smart Republican types -- both inside and outside the Senate -- to understand why they are doing what they are doing. Here's what they told us.

1. There's no downside. While the fight over Hagel is consuming official Washington -- and enraging the Democratic base -- Republican strategists believe that not only are few regular people following all of this, but the former Nebraska senator isn't someone with all that many allies outside of Washington. "He’s about as unsympathetic a character as you’re ever going to see so the political danger is virtually non-existent," said one senior Senate Republican aide. Added another GOP Senate strategist: "Hagel doesn't have a natural base of grassroots support outside the president and Democratic leaders so it's difficult to see any real backlash developing." Worth noting: A Quinnipiac University poll conducted earlier this month showed that two-thirds of people didn't know enough about Hagel to offer an opinion either favorable or unfavorable.

2. The beefs with Hagel are legit. Several operatives rejected the notion that the Hagel blockade is largely about politics. (Worth noting: ALL fights in Congress are at least 50 percent about politics and often far more than that.) "A number of senators have serious concerns with his lack of experience leading such a massive bureaucracy, in addition to his position on Iran and Israel," said one GOP strategist. "And in some ways, this is part of a broader debate and effort to draw attention to the administration's policies in the Middle East.  The longer this nomination is drawn out, the more attention is given to those issues."

3. It's a Republican rallying cry. Republicans thought they would be in the Senate majority right now. And they thought they might also have Mitt Romney in the White House. Neither of those things happened. Instead, Senate Republicans watched their House colleagues ensure they got a worse deal on the fiscal cliff and kick the can down the road on the debt ceiling.  In short: The Senate GOP conference needs something to rally around and Hagel's nomination serves as a useful exercise to do just that. (Also, never forget that Hagel is widely viewed as a wolf in sheep's clothing -- a Republican turned kind-of Democrat -- by most of his former colleagues.) "It’s always good to have a 'support your colleagues' exercise when a Senator in your conference is looking for information from the Administration early in a new Congress," explained one aide. "It ensures you’re playing as a team going forward.  It sets a precedent that the conference will not be rolled."

Where do things go from here?  Reid aides acknowledged Thursday that Hagel doesn't have the 60 votes he needs right now. By our math, Hagel currently has 58 "yes" votes: All 55 Democratic and Democratic-leaning Senators as well as GOP Sens. Thad Cochran (Miss.), Mike Johanns (Neb.,) and Susan Collins (Maine), all of whom have said they would vote for cloture.

That leaves two paths.

The first is that the Obama Administration gives in to South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham's request/demand for more information regarding the terrorist attacks last fall in Benghazi, Libya. Such a move would ensure Hagel's confirmation as at least two more Republican Senators would vote for cloture and then Hagel would easily get the simple majority of votes he needs.

The second is that the president refuses to give in to Graham. The White House had stayed firm in its position that Hagel will be confirmed and that nothing more needs to be said or done on its part.  "We urge the Republicans in the Senate to drop their delay," deputy White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday. "There is a clear majority in the United States Senate for Senator Hagel's confirmation." If the White House doesn't swerve from that course, it ensures a political staring contest with Senate Republicans all the while with Hagel twisting in the wind. Such a move could very well doom his nomination prospects.

Read more from Washington Post Politics:

Reid schedules vote on Hagel nomination

Immigration push sparks GOP power struggle

How Rubio is trying to turn his sip slip into a political win

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan | February 14, 2013