Fifty-eight voted to move forward with the nomination, while 40 voted to hold it up. One senator, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, announced present, and Republican Sen. David Vitter missed the vote.
Democrats needed 60 votes to end a filibuster, but the move failed due to GOP opposition surrounding questions about Hagel’s finances, as well as remaining tension between some Republican senators and the White House over the terror attack in Benghazi, Libya.
The chamber largely voted along party lines, with the exception of four Republicans who voted with Democrats.
Republicans, however, signaled they’re willing to allow the nomination to proceed after recess, when only a simple majority of 51 votes are required to stop a filibuster. The Senate is not in session next week.
Filibusters of cabinet officials are extremely rare, largely because senators typically believe a president has a right to pick the leaders of his government.
“This is the first time in the history of our country that a presidential nominee for secretary of defense has been filibustered,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday when the outcome seemed uncertain. “What a shame.”
The White House sent a letter to Capitol Hill Thursday stating that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Libyan President Mohammed Magariaf the same night as the attack. President Obama, according to the letter, did not speak to the Libyan president until the evening of the day following the violence.
Before committing to vote on Hagel’s nomination, three GOP senators–Sens. Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Kelly Ayotte–had demanded answers about the attack in a letter Tuesday to the Obama administration. Graham publicly stated that he was specifically asking whether Obama called Libyan officials on the night of the attack against the consulate in Benghazi, which left four Americans dead.
The administration had been wary of responding-saying the GOP was simply moving goal posts-but the response was a sign they were losing patience and getting nervous about the Hagel nomination.
Showing further scramble on the part of the White House to keep Hagel afloat in the confirmation process, Vice President Joe Biden made calls Thursday to Republican senators about the nominee, according to a senior Democratic source.
Hagel has been battling his way through a rocky nomination process. Democrats were at one point confident they had the 60 votes, including five Republicans, needed to stop a GOP filibuster, but concerns suddenly escalated Wednesday when McCain said he was reconsidering his previous commitment to vote against a filibuster.
McCain, R-Arizona, now says he’s satisfied with the answers the White House provided to questions about Benghazi and that he is in negotiations to get answers about Hagel’s finances. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and other GOP senators want to know the source of Hagel’s income in the years after he left the Senate.
“I think it was an adequate response, yes,” McCain said about the Benghazi matter. “We are working on and having negotiations now trying to smooth this thing out and get it done.”
But he later said on the Senate floor that will vote “no” to ending the filibuster on Thursday. He will, however, vote “yes” after recess.
“That is sufficient time to get any additional questions answered and I will vote in favor of cloture on the day we get back and I believe that my colleagues, enough of my colleagues will do the same,” he said. A cloture vote would allow the nomination to proceed.
Graham, R-South Carolina, agreed and also told reporters he would vote for cloture after recess unless some huge “bombshell” comes out over the next week. His comments signaled that the votes will be there for Hagel when the Senate resumes session the week after next.
Multiple Republican senators told CNN earlier Thursday that they also planned to vote against ending a filibuster, saying the vote is too rushed with outstanding questions. When they hold a filibuster vote after the chamber gets back from recess, then they will allow the nomination to go through and the Senate can hold an up-or-down vote on Hagel.
Democrats, on the other hand, see this as a time to make it seem like Republicans are opposing Hagel for political reasons and holding the filibuster vote Thursday, as opposed to after recess, would further illustrate that objective.
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, one of the few lawmakers to go against her own party on the vote, said she voted for cloture because “I said I was not going to support a filibuster, and I stuck by my word.” Murkowski was one of the senators who spoke with Biden on Thursday.
Susan Collins of Maine, another Republican senator who voted yes, said she thinks the president should be able to choose his own cabinet. But she plans to vote no on Hagel when it comes to an up-or-down vote.
Reid took to the Senate floor on Thursday morning, building pressure on Republicans to back off of their threats. He added that the letter sent from the White House answers “all their questions.”
“This isn’t a high school getting ready for a football game or some play that’s being produced at the high school,” he also said. “This is, we’re trying to confirm somebody to run the defenses of our country, the military of our country.”
Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says he will remain in his position until a defense nominee is “sworn into office,” a senior Pentagon official said Thursday.
Administration officials and Congressional Democrats said they were on the phone late into the night Wednesday discussing how to get Republican votes. The sources said the administration had been told they did not have enough GOP votes to gain the necessary 60 to stop a filibuster.
Meanwhile, some questioned whether Hagel would withdraw his nomination. But one senior administration official said that idea is “insane.”
Referring to the GOP, the official said, “No one knows what they really want. There is nothing real to be had.”
“They wanted testimony from (former Secretary of State) Hillary Rodham Clinton and Leon Panetta and they got it…there is nothing real to be had,” the official continued.
Hagel’s brother Tom, a law professor who’s in constant contact with his brother, also said Hagel will not withdraw his name.
“Knowing him, not only will he not withdraw, but he will be motivated to fight harder,” he said.
Asked Wednesday in a press conference whether the GOP was moving goal posts on the issue, Graham gave a firm “no.”
“I’m gonna hit you, and keep hitting you,” he vowed. “Absolutely. You’re not going to get away without answering the basic questions. Did you make a phone call on September 11th to any Libyan government official using the weight and the voice of the president of the United States to help these people in their time of great need.”
Speaking aboard Air Force One, however, White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest stressed earlier Thursday a sense of urgency in filling the new defense secretary position.
“It is difficult to explain to our allies why exactly that is happening. It also sends a signal to our men and women in uniform who are currently deployed around the world and who are currently serving in the frontlines of Afghanistan and are taking fire today,” he told reporters. “They need a new secretary of defense. So we urge Republicans in the Senate to drop their delay.”