On Wednesday Senate Republicans forced the Senate to a 60-vote threshold on the confirmation of Chuck Hagel. In order to move forward to a vote Democrats will have to find 60 senators to vote yes on cloture. If they do, the Democrats with a 55-45 majority are expected to confirm Hagel on a near party-line vote.
Wednesday was also a big day for Republican opponents of Hagel in two ways.
First, moderate Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who some news organizations had reported would vote for Hagel, came out to say she would oppose his confirmation, although not block a “final” vote. (It’s unclear whether she would nevertheless support a temporary delay so her GOP colleagues Sens. John McCain, Kelly Ayotte and Lindsey Graham can garner information they requested from the White House on Benghazi.)
Second, McCain and others remained up in the air, maintaining the very real possibility that Friday’s vote might not lead to a quick Hagel confirmation. Meanwhile, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) announced that he would support a filibuster if need be. (“If they’re not going to give us the information, the only way to get the information is to threaten to hold them to a higher standard of 60 votes.”)
This is one of those few times when neither side is really sure where all the votes are. The mood in anti-Hagel GOP offices late Wednesday was more optimistic than it had been just a day or so earlier, in part because Graham is determined to get substantive answers from the White House and in part because there is widespread, bipartisan agreement that Hagel’s nomination has been a semi-disaster for the White House. Republicans are increasingly of the mind that delaying or even permanently holding up Hagel will not be seen as obstructionist but rather a principled stance against an unfit nominee. With news every day of emerging threats (today is word of a potentially major expansion of Iran’s nuclear weapons program), the prospect for Hagel leading the Pentagon seems downright frightening.
Indeed in her lengthy statement explaining why she would oppose Hagel, Collins cited precisely this rationale, saying, “Proliferation of terrorism, the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran and the reality of a nuclear-armed North Korea, an increasingly dangerous and unstable Middle East that threatens our national interests and our ally Israel, and the possibility of deep and indiscriminate cuts in the defense budget that would undermine America’s strength and security” required a different Pentagon chief. Pointing to Hagel’s position on Hezbollah and unilateral sanctions, she concluded:
It is telling and disturbing that when I asked Senator Hagel what he believed were the greatest threats facing our country, he identified the resource shortage that could result from the addition of two billion more people during the next couple decades as near the top of his list. While there no doubt will be tremendous challenges associated with this development, his response concerned me when I consider all of the enormous near-term threats facing our country.
In my judgment, Islamist terrorism, a nuclear-armed North Korea and potentially a nuclear-armed Iran, an unstable and chaotic Middle East, cyber attacks, Chinese provocations, and budget constraints will likely consume the attention of our country’s national security leaders during the next four years. I believe a vote in favor of Senator Hagel would send the wrong signal to our military, the American people, and to the world about America’s resolve regarding the most important national security challenges of our era.
I am unable to support Senator Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense because I do not believe his past positions, votes, and statements match the challenges of our time, and his presentations at his hearing did nothing to ease my doubts
That calmly reasoned argument is reverberating through the ranks of Senate Republicans.
The 60-vote threshold has already accomplished three things. It has forced the White House to fork over Benghazi information, although the extent of that is yet to be seen. It raises the potential Hagel may be defeated and makes clear just how damaged he will be if he enters office. And most interesting, it provides an opportunity for some red-state Democrats and figures like Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) to vote for cloture (on the grounds the president should get his pick) but against the nominee, making his margin razor thin. From their perspective there is no reason to sacrifice their credibility, risk rubber-stamping an inept figure and support a Republican for a key Cabinet spot if Hagel has enough support to squeak through anyway with 51 votes. Think of it like a free swing akin to those few Republicans who voted no on the fiscal cliff; the deal got done but they emerged with clean hands.
At the center of this drama are Graham and McCain. McCain is likely to support his “amigo” Graham if Graham feels he is still getting stiffed by the White House. Graham has every reason to hold out for the information and to further endear himself to conservatives whose support he will need in his reelection bid. Once we see how Graham and McCain are leaning, we’ll know which way the vote is going to go on Friday.