It’s still likely–very likely–that Chuck Hagel will end up being the next defense secretary. But his path to confirmation keeps hitting snags–and the latest threatens to set a very, very bad precedent, one that could severely complicate the ability of any future president–Democrat or Republican–to assemble a Cabinet.
By all accounts, Hagel has enough support to win a confirmation vote. His nomination cleared the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday on a party-line vote, and not a single Senate Democrat has announced opposition to him. Since Democrats have 55 seats–and since two Republicans, Nebraska’s Mike Johanns and Mississippi’s Thad Cochran are on the record backing him–that should be that.
But it isn’t, because Hagel is facing a filibuster, meaning he’ll first need to come up with 60 votes before he’s even allowed to have a straight up-or-down vote on the Senate floor.
The resistance is coming from Republicans, and the biggest reason is obvious: To the right, Hagel is a traitor. For 12 years, he was a Republican senator–a rising star in his party who was touted as vice presidential prospect in 2000 and a White House contender in the early stages of the 2008 campaign. But he turned on the Iraq War and George W. Bush’s foreign policy, then left the Senate, refused to endorse John McCain in 2008, teamed up with Barack Obama and, well…now he’s the living definition of a Republican in Name Only. A RINO.
There are some other factors too. Lindsey Graham is leading the charge against Hagel. Not coincidentally, that’s the same Lindsey Graham whose past breaks with Republican orthodoxy have made him supremely vulnerable to a conservative primary challenge in 2014. No better way to shore up your standing on the right than to torment a Republican turncoat who wants to join the Obama administration.
Israel is an issue too. Over the past generation, the Republican Party has moved farther and farther to the right on Middle East issues, to the point that it’s views are virtually indistinguishable from Israel’s far-right Likud Party. This, the GOP keeps hoping, will entice Jewish voters to give up their Democratic loyalties. It hasn’t happened yet, but trying to use Israel to make an example of Hagel is part of the same effort.
What Republicans have failed to produce, though, is any information or testimony that shows Hagel is unqualified or unfit to run the Pentagon. This is a key point. Members of the opposition party don’t have to like the White House’s Cabinet picks. In fact, they probably shouldn’t, since most presidents are going to want like-minded people in their Cabinets. So if you don’t like a president’s philosophy, you’re probably not going to like the philosophy of his or her Cabinet members.
But that’s no reason to kill a nomination. Rejections of Cabinet picks by the Senate are rare. In the last century, just three have been voted down–Charles Warren for AG in 1925, Lewis Strauss for Commerce in 1959, and John Tower for Defense in 1989. There were extraordinary circumstances involved. Tower, for instance, faced questions about serial womanizing and heavy drinking. He pledged not to touch the bottle while on the job, but it was hardly unreasonable to wonder if he was fit to run the military.
There are no questions like that about Hagel. He’s just a nominee Republicans don’t like personally and don’t agree with philosophically. That is not grounds to derail a nomination–and yet the GOP is signaling that it will make Hagel come up with 60 votes.
In the end, there probably will be 60 votes for Hagel. But this has never happened before. But it could happen a lot more in the future. Before they go too far down this road, Republicans might want to ask themselves: What happens the next time one of their own is in the White House and finds himself or herself facing a Democratic Senate? Frivolous filibustering will probably feel a lot different to them then.