Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced Thursday that Republicans have told him that they plan to block Chuck Hagel's nomination to be the next secretary of Defense over demands for more information from the White House.
Senior Democratic aides said that Hagel's nomination does not have 60 votes at this time to overcome Republican objections before a key Friday procedural vote, leaving the nomination in limbo ahead of next week's Senate recess.
Complicating the situation still further was Reid's announcement that the current holder of the job, Leon Panetta, would clock out later today.
"We do not have, at 12 o'clock today, a secretary of Defense," Reid said. "It's tragic they've decided to filibuster this qualified nominee -- it is really unfortunate."
Reid's hope is that the escalating pressure and warnings over national security will force Republicans to bend on Hagel's nomination -- particularly since a few key GOP senators are holding out on an issue unrelated to the nominee's qualifications: The president's handling of last September's deadly attacks in Benghazi.
The White House condemned Republicans' move.
"These delaying tactics are unconscionable and they should end right away," principal deputy press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One on the way to Chicago. "We need our new defense secretary to be there. It does not send a favorable signal for the Republicans of the U.S. Senate to delay a vote. ...It's difficult to explain to our allies why that's happening."
Republican leaders are trying to walk a careful line: They do not want to be perceived as filibustering a defense nominee for the first time in history, but also want to pressure the White House into giving up more information.
After Reid's angry speech, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did not address the Hagel matter on the floor. In a brief interview, McConnell downplayed the significance of the Friday procedural vote.
"As you know, any one senator can require we get cloture on a nomination - it's not unusual," McConnell told POLITICO. "I would expect that to happen. It happens on a great many things."
Asked if he would urge Republican senators to vote to sustain a filibuster, McConnell would only say: "We'll see what happens tomorrow."
An aide assisting with the confirmation told POLITICO the Obama administration believes Hagel will ultimately be confirmed.
"There are lots of discussions going on prior to tomorrow's vote on cloture, where everyone stands," the aide said. "The administration is still confident that Chuck Hagel will be the next secretary of defense."
Democrats earlier appeared confident Hagel would be confirmed in the Senate, despite a bitterly partisan vote in the Senate Armed Services Committee and Republican efforts to delay, if not derail, a final vote in the full Senate.
But with Democrats controlling the Senate with just 55 votes, the former Republican senator from Nebraska needs a Republican lift to get the 60 votes needed to break a GOP filibuster. The vote to end debate is now set for Friday. A simple majority of 51 votes would be needed for confirmation, if debate is ended.
So far, only two Republicans are supporting Hagel: Sens. Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Thad Cochran of Mississippi. And Johanns said on Wednesday he'd vote to end debate.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has announced that she would oppose Chuck Hagel's confirmation but would not support a filibuster.
But that's where the certainty ends. Hagel still needs another two Republicans to move on.
One Hagel aide suggested Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) as a possible vote to end debate, though he's opposed to Hagel's confirmation.
He had said he doubts he would support a filibuster, but at a POLITICO event on Wednesday, he said, "It's too quick to end the debate on this nomination. ... I don't think we'll move forward for a few days on that."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), another possibility, has backed away a bit from his declaration that Hagel should not be filibustered, saying he and fellow GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire would not support efforts to move the nomination forward until the White House responded to their requests for more information on the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
And still another possibility is Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who's indicated she might be willing to support Hagel.
In a statement after they met in late January, Murkowski noted the five years she and Hagel spent together in the Senate, saying, "I appreciated his skeptical brand of thinking and straight talk when we served together." But she's been tight-lipped lately, declining to answer questions from POLITICO on Wednesday.
No Democrats are known to be considering defection. And Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) says he's "confident" Hagel will get five Republicans.
"I've been told that there are five; and I've read a couple who would vote for the nomination, and I've read a couple who won't vote for a filibuster. And when you put all that together, we're at 60," he said.
In the meantime, Hagel supporters and Hagel critics alike have become amateur overnight whip counters.
One Hagel supporter emailed with the subject line, "What's the bet we have the 5." In the Capitol Hill subway, an aide approached reporters, asking, "Who do you think we have on the board?"
The ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, quipped that counting Republicans was like "herding cats."
"Democrats pretty much line up and do what the party says," Inhofe said. "As a general rule, no one is going to argue with the fact that they are more disciplined than Republicans are."
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 3 GOP Senate leader, predicts that Republicans will stay united to delay Hagel's confirmation if information is not provided by the White House about the Benghazi attack.
"I think we will hold the line if there's a vote this week," Thune predicted
Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), the GOP vote-counter, is being publicly coy lately.
The Gazette now offers Facebook Comments on its stories. You must be logged into your Facebook account to add comments. If you do not want your comment to post to your personal page, uncheck the box below the comment. Comments deemed offensive by the moderators will be removed, and commenters who persist may be banned from commenting on the site.