Democrats reacted with outrage at the Republican filibuster of Chuck Hagel as the next US Defense Secretary, as they raced to paint their opponents as prime culprits for the renewed political gridlock already evident in Washington just weeks into President Barack Obama’s second term.
The latest twist in the contentious Hagel saga took place late on Thursday when the former Republican senator failed to obtain the 60 votes on the Senate floor needed to clear the way for an up-or-down confirmation vote – a near-unprecedented use of the procedural blocking device against a nominee to one of the most important Cabinet posts. “It’s just unfortunate that this kind of politics intrudes at a time when I’m still presiding over a war in Afghanistan, and I need a secretary of defense who is coordinating with our allies,” Mr Obama tartly commented.
If some Republicans are to be believed, a similar filibuster could also stall confirmation of John Brennan as CIA director, further complicating the installation of the administration’s national security team.
In fact, Mr Hagel’s ultimate confirmation is scarcely in doubt. In the roll call, he fell short by just a single vote, 59 to 40, and there has been no sign that his nomination will be withdrawn. Several Republicans who voted against him on Thursday said they would drop their resistance when the Senate reconvenes in 10 days time. Given the Democrats’ 55-45 majority, the outcome of a final vote would be little more than a formality.
But at the very least it means an unwelcome stay on the job for the outgoing Pentagon chief Leon Panetta, itching to return home to California for good. “I’m looking forward to the chance to get the hell out of town,” he declared at a Pentagon ceremony in honour of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Instead he now has to go to Brussels for a Nato meeting on post-conflict Afghanistan next week.
Several reasons explain the Republicans’ hostility to Mr Hagel. The public ones are objections to his record on Israel and gay rights, and a desire to root out the truth about the 11 September 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, for which the Hagel confirmation is a convenient bargaining tool.
But there is a personal element as well: not just a widespread disappointment – shared by many Democrats – at Mr Hagel’s limp performance at his confirmation hearing last month, but an abiding resentment at how he turned against the 2003 Iraq war, launched by a Republican president and which Mr Hagel originally supported.
Normally a past or present Senator nominated to high office is treated with special courtesy by his old colleagues – witness the friendly treatment of John Kerry, Ms Clinton’s successor at the State Department, who was confirmed by a majority of 94 to three. Not Mr Hagel however, widely regarded as a traitor to the cause.
The showdown may presage bitter partisan fighting on other fronts, as Congress tackles immigration reform and the federal budget deficit. Formulas must be found to avert both the automatic $85bn of government spending cuts, the so-called “sequester”, due to take effect on 1 March, and a potential government shutdown when temporary budget spending authority runs out on 27 March.
Republicans insist they are not mounting a filibuster against Mr Hagel merely a temporary delay to extract additional information. Either way however, their tactics fly in the face of a deal when the new Congress was sworn in in January, supposed to limit senators’ use of the filibuster. “Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, it got worse,” said Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader.