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The GOP’s anti-Hagel crusade: Was it worth it?

Chuck Hagel made the penultimate step toward becoming the next defense secretary Tuesday, with his nomination overcoming a procedural vote that it failed to get past two weeks ago.

For all intents and purposes, that means Hagel will be confirmed shortly.

But not for lack of trying by GOP senators, who invested plenty of time and political will in trying to upend the nomination of their former Republican colleague.

So with the battle now all but over, it begs the question: Was it worth it?

Former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel. (Reuters)

There are compelling cases to be made on both sides:

Why it wasn't worth it

At the end of the day, any legislative maneuvering needs to be judged on whether it succeeded. And in this case, barring something out of left field before the final vote, Hagel will become the next defense secretary. In other words: The GOP lost. Republicans quite simply weren't able to land that final knock-out blow that they were hoping for, and now they've got a guy they really don't like headed for one of the top Cabinet posts in the Obama administration.

In addition, by delaying Hagel's nomination with a filibuster — something that had never been done to a defense secretary nominee (even if Republicans tried in vain to argue that it wasn't actually a filibuster) — Republicans have set a precedent. If and when they return to the White House, Democrats now have a new weapon with which to hold up GOP Cabinet nominees, if they decide to use it. The reason senators are so reticent to alter their chamber's rules is they know it will also apply when the majority/minority roles are reversed. That's why we still have the filibuster, even though Democrats would love to legislate in the majority without it.

And finally, Republicans failed to put up a totally united front against Hagel, with a couple senators supporting his nomination even before the filibuster, and several more voting with Democrats to override the filibuster. The administration can now credibly make the case that Hagel had bipartisan support — something Republicans would have liked to avoid.

Why it was worth it

Despite the unprecedented nature of the filibuster and the Democratic criticism of their effort against a decorated war hero, Republicans likely will pay no major political price for their tactics. This is for two reasons:

1) The American people quite simply weren't all that interested. Even though the Hagel drama was big news in Washington, it was met by the American people with a collective yawn. Even as of last week, a Pew poll showed that half of Americans said they didn't know enough about Hagel to rate him favorably or unfavorably. Despite the dicey electoral gambit to delay Hagel's nomination, there has been little backlash against Republicans for doing it — at least as far as we can tell right now.

And 2) Nobody is going to mourn much for Chuck Hagel. The fact is that this is a guy without a political home. He is a former Republican senator who alienated his own party with his vehement criticism of the Iraq war and also is seen as a political interloper who hasn't built up a whole lot of good will with Democrats. His past criticisms of the "Jewish lobby" and a gay ambassador nominee, while not enough to derail his nomination, were enough to ensure that even his supporters weren't all that enamored of him. And Republicans were able to bring his numbers down a little, with Pew showing his unfavorable rating rising from 18 percent in January to 28 percent last week (his favorable rating also rose slightly, from 18 percent to 22 percent, over that span).

In the end, the Hagel nomination will amount to little more than an inside baseball political game. Republicans effectively registered their concerns and have, for the second time this year, either thwarted one of President Obama's likely Cabinet picks (Susan Rice) or served notice that they won't be steamrolled into supporting divisive nominees (Hagel).

The battle isn't over, and some Republicans are also making noise about holding up the nominations of Jack Lew for treasury secretary and John Brennan for CIA director. The Hagel situation suggests that, even though they may not succeed, there's not a whole lot of downside to trying.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.

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