How unprecedented is the Hagel filibuster?

February 15, 2013

Now that Republicans have successfully filibustered Chuck Hagel's nomination (whatever they want to call it), Democrats are calling the move "unprecedented." Are they right?

There has never been a cloture vote on a nominee for secretary of defense, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Thursday. And a Cabinet nominee has never been defeated by filibuster.

What there have been are holds. Lots of them.*

In 1987, five Republican senators put a hold on President Reagan's nomination of C. William Verity Jr. as secretary of commerce. He passed a cloture vote, 85 to 8, and was confirmed.

Democrats threatened to filibuster President Bush's nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Stephen Johnson. (The EPA administrator is not an official member of the Cabinet, but the position was afforded Cabinet-level status under Bush.) Johnson survived a cloture vote narrowly, 61 to 37.

Johnson is the closest example in recent history to what's happening with Hagel. But there were only 51 Republicans in the Senate at the time. Contemporaneous reports say that Reid, then minority leader, backed off and never tried to rally votes against Johnson. (Six Democrats also put a hold on a previous EPA nominee of Bush's, Michael Leavitt, but withdrew it when it was clear they did not have the votes for a filibuster.)

John Bolton's nomination as U.S. representative to the United Nations was blocked by a Democratic filibuster. But that post did not have Cabinet-level status at the time. (Under President Obama, the U.N. ambassador is included in the Cabinet.) Bush appointed Bolton during a congressional recess.

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) placed a hold on the nomination of Rob Portman as U.S. Trade Representative in 2005, but dropped it; a cloture vote was unanimously thrown out, or vitiated. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) put a hold on Interior Secretary nominee Dirk Kempthorne a year later, but the cloture vote was easily overcome in an 85 to 8 vote.

If you expand to include all executive and judicial appointees, there are even more cloture votes -- with a dramatic increase in the past two decades. Until 1949, cloture could not be invoked on nominations, and it happened only twice before 1980, both times for Supreme Court justices.

Chart courtesy of Capitol Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media.
Chart courtesy of Capitol Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media.

Judicial nominations generally dominate the cloture category. On March 12 of last year, Reid scheduled cloture votes on 17 nominees; all were withdrawn after he struck a deal with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

But for a cloture vote to result in a failed nomination is still unusual. According to the Congressional Research Service, of the 89 nominees who faced cloture votes between 1948 and 2010, only 17 were not confirmed.

So, cloture votes on judicial nominations are pretty common, but cloture votes on Cabinet-level nominees are rare, and a successful block of a Cabinet nominee is unprecedented. However, Republicans have shied away from making more history there; they say they will relent to a simple majority vote on Hagel, a move that will guarantee confirmation, later this month.

* Over at Wonkblog, Dylan Matthews notes that Republicans required a 60-vote threshold for two Obama Cabinet nominees, but by bipartisan agreement there was no cloture vote in either case: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in 2009 and Commerce Secretary John Bryson in 2011. Both were confirmed.

Read more from Washington Post Politics:

GOP filibuster stalls Hagel nomination

Why Republicans won't call it a filibuster

The growing debate over whether Washington has a spending problem

Rachel Weiner covers cops and courts in Arlington and Alexandria.
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Aaron Blake | February 15, 2013