Just when it seemed as if Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as secretary of defense seemed almost certain, a crucial Senate Republican may be changing his mind about supporting a filibuster of the embattled nominee. As Politico reports, Senator John McCain is now leaving open the possibility of joining a filibuster of Hagel if the White House continues to refuse to release information about the president’s “actions and orders” on the night of the 9/11 terrorist attack in Benghazi that resulted in the deaths of four Americans.
By joining his friend and colleague Lindsey Graham in demanding more data about Benghazi as the price for removing a hold on Hagel, McCain is moving away from his previous stand that a filibuster of a nominee for a senior Cabinet post is inappropriate. With two Republicans saying they would vote to confirm Hagel and several others agreeing with McCain that an up or down vote should not be denied their former colleague, it had looked as if the president’s choice was certain to be confirmed this week. But by adding his weight to the request for more about Benghazi, McCain may have, at least temporarily, changed the dynamic of the Hagel battle. Since the administration has resisted Senate demands to learn more about the president’s involvement in the Libya fiasco, this could mean that Hagel will have to wait until at least after the President’s Day holiday to get his vote.
On the surface, Benghazi has little if anything to do with Hagel’s questionable fitness for high office. Many in the Senate have justified qualms about Hagel’s views about Israel, Iran, terrorism and defense cuts but McCain has taken the position that escalating the use of the filibuster to encompass cabinet nominations is a step towards all out partisan warfare that he isn’t willing to take. But McCain seems to agree with Graham and other Republicans that it is vital that the truth about Benghazi isn’t swept down the memory hole by the administration and their complacent media cheerleaders. If linking Hagel to that affair is the only way to drag more information out of the White House, then McCain may have concluded that it is the right thing to do.
It may be that a delay won’t convince Democrats to abandon their party line on Hagel. The strict partisan divide in the Senate Defense committee confirmation vote illustrated the willingness of pro-Israel Democrats to swallow even as unsatisfactory and unprepared a candidate as Hagel if the president demanded it of them. But if McCain feels that the Senate is being stiffed by the White House on Benghazi that may convince him to take actions on Hagel that he might otherwise not think about. With McCain joining a filibuster, finding 40 votes to stop the nomination would still be difficult but not as impossible as it seems today.
As I wrote yesterday, such a filibuster entails risks to the Republicans. But his dismal performance at his confirmation hearing and the transparent manner with which he sought to disavow previous controversial positions undermines the rationale that the president deserves his choice at the Pentagon. Hagel may still be on track for confirmation. But if the White House isn’t forthcoming with the information Graham and McCain want, it’s going to be even more difficult than he might have thought.