WASHINGTON, Feb 14 – Republicans demanding answers from President Barack Obama’s pick to head the Pentagon forced Senate leaders on Wednesday to delay a vote, throwing Chuck Hagel’s confirmation into doubt.
Senators James Inhofe and Lindsey Graham have expressed strong opposition to rushing the confirmation process, and after Hagel was narrowly approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday along strict party lines, the Republicans insisted they would try to block a vote in the full Senate.
“This is the first time in the history of our country that a presidential nominee for secretary of defence has been filibustered. What a shame,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the floor of the chamber.
To overcome the blocking tactic, Reid scheduled a vote for Friday to end debate on the Hagel nomination, but such a procedure requires a 60-vote threshold rather than the typical simple majority.
Democrats hold a 55-45 edge in the Senate. No Democrats are expected to vote against Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran and Republican former senator. However, just two Republicans have publicly stated their support.
It remained an open question whether there were another three Republicans willing to cross party lines and allow the nomination to get to the floor.
“I would hope we would have 60 votes,” Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein told AFP. “I have not heard that there are not, let me put it that way.”
If confirmed, Hagel would replace outgoing Pentagon chief Leon Panetta at a time of rising tension in Middle East hotspots, in the budget battle at home and after this week’s rogue nuclear test by North Korea.
Senate Democrats have warned that now is not the time to waffle over a crucial cabinet member who directs the US military, and the White House has called for expeditious action to fill the vital post.
Spokesman Jay Carney said the White House has “100 percent confidence” that there was “majority (support for Hagel) and then some.”
“So we ask Congress – the Senate – to move quickly to confirm him as secretary of defence.”
Inhofe sought to downplay his effort to block a vote, insisting there was “nothing unusual” about it.
“I’d vote tonight if we could just get the information that’s been requested by the Republican members of the Armed Services Committee.”
He and colleagues have taken issue with several comments and votes by Hagel in recent years about Iran, nuclear weapons, Israel and the US troop surge in Iraq.
They have demanded financial compensation data and transcripts from speeches Hagel gave to foreign audiences, saying some records are missing.
Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin said the demands went beyond the level traditionally asked of nominees.
But Graham said he would “take every opportunity” to block a Hagel vote in order to get the questions answered.
“I don’t think I’m being unfair to the process by saying ‘slow down,’” Graham told reporters.
“I remember very well what the Congress did when it came to Bush administration failures. We provided oversight,” he said, recalling bruising congressional investigations of the past.
“If the shoe were on the other foot, and this was a Republican president, I’d guaran-damn-tee there’d be a lot of Democrats doing what I’m doing.”
On Wednesday, moderate Republican Susan Collins came out in opposition of Hagel, but stressed she would not prevent a floor vote.
“I oppose senator Hagel’s nomination, but I cannot join in a filibuster to block each senator’s right to vote for or against him,” she said.
Republican Marco Rubio however was supporting the delay.
“It’s not the preferred route,” he told AFP, but “there is more information that we need to learn.”