(The New York TImes) - Senate Republicans on Thursday blockedPresident Obama’s nominee to lead the Pentagon in a defiant move likely to further strain partisan tensions while preventing the White House, at least temporarily, from assembling its second-term national security team.
In a result that broke down almost strictly along party lines, Democratic senators could not muster the support to advance the nomination of Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, to a final vote. The vote was 58 to 40, falling short of the 60 that were needed.
Democrats vowed to try again to resuscitate the nomination of Mr. Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran, when the Senate returns from recess in 10 days. Several Republicans who voted against Mr. Hagel said they would not block a final vote.
Democrats accused the opponents of mounting the first-ever filibuster against a Pentagon chief for their own political purposes.
“Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, it gets worse,” said Senator Harry Reidof Nevada, the majority leader. “I guess to be able to run for the Senate as a Republican in most places of the country, you need to have a résumé that says, ‘I helped filibuster one of the president’s nominees.' ”
The vote represented the first time in history that the Senate has required that a nominee for secretary of defense clear the 60-vote hurdle before a final, simple majority vote. Republicans, who took the extraordinary step of rebuffing their former colleague and fellow party member, insisted that Democrats were trying to rush a vote on a crucial cabinet position that deserved more consideration.
“We didn’t need to have this vote today,” said Senator John Cornynof Texas, the second-ranking Senate Republican. “But the White House and the majority leader were determined to have this vote in order to try to get a story in the newspaper, one that misrepresents the nature of the objection on this side.”
All day, a tense standoff played out in the Capitol as one party tried to force the other into a more politically undesirable position. Republicans, calculating that Democrats might want to avoid forcing a vote that could result in an embarrassing setback for the president, had hoped to press Mr. Reid to back down and reschedule after the Senate returns from its recess.
Democrats, mindful that Republicans did not want to be blamed for jeopardizing the Pentagon’s stability for political purposes, decided to press ahead and require Republicans to record a vote against Mr. Hagel, allowing Democrats to accuse them of a new level of obstructionism.
While the showdown vote was set for Friday morning, just after 3 p.m. on Thursday Mr. Reid came to the Senate floor to move that it be called instead at 4:15. That forced senators like John McCainof Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who have said that they find the act of filibustering a defense secretary distasteful, to cast votes that had the same result as a filibuster, even if they refused to call it that.
Four Republicans joined Democrats in voting that debate on the nomination should end: Senators Thad Cochranof Mississippi, Susan Collins of Maine, Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah voted present because he said he was wary of the precedent a no vote would set, even though anything other than a yes vote had the same practical effect on the outcome.
Because of parliamentary rules, Mr. Reid voted with Republicans to allow him to bring the Hagel nomination back for another vote. Counting Mr. Reid, Mr. Hagel was actually just one vote shy of the 60 needed.
Given the outcome, a major matter of concern for the White House over the next 10 days is that Mr. Hagel’s opponents — an array of groups that includes conservative and pro-Israel forces — could intensify their campaigns to defeat his nomination.
Leaders of these groups said in interviews that they expected their efforts to include more phone calls urging conservative voters to tell their senators to vote no; new efforts to unearth embarrassing details from Mr. Hagel’s past; and, potentially, a new round of television advertisements pressuring Democrats to drop their support for him.
“My intention is to keep doing what we’re doing, but only to escalate the effort,” said David Brog, the executive director of the large, pro-Israel evangelical group Christians United for Israel.
Republicans were moving on other fronts to block Mr. Obama as he tries to put together his national security team. Senator Rand Paulof Kentucky has said he will place a hold on the nomination of the president’s director of central intelligence, John O. Brennan, and Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham also said they intended to use Mr. Brennan’s nomination to force the administration to answer questions about the September attack in Benghazi, Libya. “It’s a time-honored practice,” Mr. McCain said. “It’s a way for us to get information.”
In a statement after Thursday’s vote, the White House accused Republicans of putting “political posturing ahead of our nation’s security.” It added that there were serious matters at hand: “We have 66,000 men and women deployed in Afghanistan, and we need our new secretary of defense to be a part of significant decisions about how we bring that war to a responsible end.”
The Pentagon said that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panettawill remain in the position and travel next week to Brussels for a major NATO conference, an event that Democrats had hoped would be Mr. Hagel’s debut on the world stage.
The vote on Thursday was an abrupt and unexpected turn of events. Mr. Hagel had earlier appeared to have at least the 60 votes required to break a Republican filibuster.
Then this week, Mr. McCain and other Republicans who had said they might oppose Mr. Hagel but would not back a filibuster — an opposition tactic that is rare for cabinet-level nominees — said they would not support ending debate, a procedural step that must be overcome in the Senate for a vote to take place. They said they wanted more detailed answers to questions about the administration’s response to the Libyan attack.
In an effort to defuse the political tension and address these questions — specifically one about whether the president had spoken with anyone in the Libyan government to request assistance during the attack — the White House wrote to the senators early Thursday informing them that Mr. Obama had spoken to the Libyan president the evening after the attack, not the day it occurred.
Still, Republicans said they needed more time. Mr. Graham noted that Mr. Hagel’s nomination passed the Armed Services Committee only on Tuesday. “This is Thursday. Two days is not quite fair,” he said.
Senator Barbara Boxerof California, summing up Democrats’ frustrations, implored her Republican colleagues, “What more are you trying to get out of this?”