WASHINGTON: By delaying a confirmation vote to make Chuck Hagel U.S. defense secretary, Senate Republicans have given the White House an opportunity to cast the Republicans as obstructing President Barack Obama’s assembly of a second-term national security team.
Senate Republicans temporarily blocked a Hagel confirmation vote Thursday, insisting that the administration must first answer more questions about its handling of a terrorist attack last September on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, called it “political posturing.”
“Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, it got worse,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said after the Republicans forced the delay.
The Senate action amounted to a parliamentary maneuver, with Republicans refusing to cut off debate – a technique that must be broken by a vote of 60 senators. Thursday’s vote fell two votes short.
Still, Hagel is likely to win confirmation on a mostly party-line vote after the Senate returns from next week’s recess. Sen. Lamar Alexander said he expects many of his Republican colleagues to join him to end the debate.
Alexander stopped short of predicting Hagel will be confirmed, but that is almost assured if he only needs a simple majority, and Democrats control the Senate by a 55-45 margin.
Alexander called Thursday’s vote “unfortunate” and “unnecessary” because Hagel’s nomination came up on the Senate floor too quickly – just two days after it was approved by a divided Armed Services Committee.
The unprecedented stall tactic against a defense secretary nominee raised the anger of frustrated Democrats, who immediately accused Republicans of threatening security and said they unnecessarily undercut U.S. credibility abroad.
“The world is too dangerous to have this period of uncertainty,” said Carl Levin, Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The nomination of John Brennan as CIA director was also delayed. The Senate Intelligence Committee pushed off a vote amid Republican demands that the White House turn over more details about drone strikes against terror suspects and about the Benghazi embassy attack.
The Pentagon and CIA will continue under their current leadership, and Panetta will stay on as defense secretary until his successor is confirmed despite being eager to give the job up.
At a Pentagon award ceremony for Clinton, Panetta said he looked forward to the chance to “get the hell out of town.”
Reid said he hoped to proceed with an up-or-down vote on Feb. 26 and suggested that the Republicans’ machinations have left the Pentagon leaderless.
“What does that do to our standing in the world community?” he said in remarks on the Senate floor.
Panetta will be back in the Pentagon next week. His press secretary, George Little, said Panetta will fly to Brussels for a NATO meeting late next week, where allies will consider the size and scope of a post-combat mission in Afghanistan.
The U.S. is hoping allied nations will contribute troops and money to continue training Afghan security forces, which are to be fully responsible for security by the end of 2014.