Don't Call It a Filibuster: Why Hagel Stalled in the Senate

The Atlantic Wire

Republican senators filibustered Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel on Thursday (though they'd rather you didn't call it that) for one reason, but they're hoping the delay gives them enough time to find another reason to block his nomination. The publicly cited reason for blocking a vote on Hagel is not anything about Hagel. Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte are blocking the vote to get leverage in their quest to get the White House to tell them more about how President Obama responded to the terror attacks in Benghazi last fall. The ten days until the Senate can take up Hagel's nomination again (a week from Tuesday, after the Senate returns from recess), will give Hagel's opponents more time to dig up and float more damaging reports about Hagel's views on Israel. 

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But while all of this sounds like a big filibuster, Republicans would prefer it be described as a hold. Talking Points Memo's Brian Beutler explains that the while it's unusual to filibuster a cabinet-level nominee, it's not unusual to put a hold on that person's nomination. A hold is like a threat to require a 60-vote margin. Usually a majority leader honors a hold, but this time, Harry Reid didn't, Beutler writes, effectively defying the holds. That's how Republicans are arguing this isn't really a filibuster. Arizona Sen. John McCain said delaying nominees like this in order to get more information is "a time-honored practice." But of course, the information they're demanding, on how the White House handled the Benghazi attacks does not have much to do with the nominee. Still, Graham said in a press conference on Thursday, "We're going to find out who changed those talking points or die trying." McCain and Graham have been torch-bearers for those who think the White House did not pay the proper political price for the terror attack that killed two American diplomats and two former Navy SEALs. 

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Hagel may be just provide them an opportunity, but other Republicans are eager to tank a high-profile Obama nominee. "Senate sources tell me that GOP thinks they can sink Hagel. But, at the same time, they don't want public to think they're playing politics," National Review's Robert Costa reports. And the f-word sounds like politics. Republicans do not want to call this a filibuster. "It's the 60-vote margin, it's not a filibuster," Inhofe said before the vote. "This is not a filibuster," Texas Sen. John Cornyn said after. Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander said, "We know what a filibuster is … it's when one side or the other… decides to try to kill a nomination by requiring 60 votes." This was not that, he said. It's just that the armed services committee sent Hagel's nomination to the full Senate only two days ago. Alexander asked, "Do 60 of us believe it's time to end debate on the nomination to become Secretary of Defense?"

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The public has been debating Hagel's nomination for quite some time now, particularly his views on Israel. So far, it's been past statements, like the time in 2006 when he referred to AIPAC as "the Jewish lobby," that have been the biggest threat to his confirmation. Back in December, when Hagel's nomination was just a rumor, an anonymous "top Republican Senate aide" told The Weekly Standard, "Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite." That has taken longer than expected, and the Hagel-as-an-anti-Semite campaign has not really produced the results Republicans were expecting.

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In Hagel's confirmation hearings, Sen. Ted Cruz played audio not of Hagel being anti-Israel, but of a caller on a call-in show Hagel appeared on being anti-Israel. Last week, Breitbart News reported Hagel had gotten funding from a group called Friends of Hamas. Slate's David Weigel reported Thursday that "Friends of Hamas" doesn't exist:

The Treasury Department, which designates sponsors of terror, has done so to many charities tied to Hamas. "Friends of Hamas" is not among them. The State Department doesn't designate it, either. And a bit less holistically, a Lexis search for the group reveals absolutely nothing.

On Thursday, the Washington Free Beacon reported that a 2007 blog post that described but did not quote a Hagel speech contained this line: "The State Department has become adjunct to the Israeli Foreign Minister’s office…" A Breitbart News report on Thursday got very meta, saying Hagel gave a June 2008 speech to the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee which he did not disclose: "Dylan Byers of Politico had suggested that the ADC speech was 'empty' of content for 'right-wing blogs' to seize upon, but the point made by Breitbart News and others was that Hagel had failed to disclose it at all." While the Senate is out on recess, there will be more time to gin up more, similar Hagel controversies.

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Speaking on the Senate floor after the Thursday vote, Alexander noted that Democrats had required a cloture vote in 2006 for John Bolton's confirmation to be ambassador to the U.N. as as his recess appointment to that position the previous year was expiring. This is a good comparison, and not just because both faced the threat of a filibuster. Both men were seen by the parties out of the White House as the embodiment of what they hated about the sitting President. Democrats complained that George W. Bush had gone into Iraq unilaterally; Bolton had said of the U.N. building in New York, "If it lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference." Today, Republicans see both Obama and Hagel as too soft on Iran. "One reason Rs oppose #Hagel: They view him as left of POTUS on policies relating to the job he's been nominated for," Roll Call's David M. Drucker tweets. Bolton withdrew his nomination in 2006; Hagel voted for him.

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