The plot to derail Chuck Hagel

The demands Republicans are making -- and the threat behind them -- create a troubling precedent

By Steve Kornacki

Published February 7, 2013 12:37PM (EST)

There are two ways of looking at Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman Carl Levin’s surprise decision to postpone an expected vote on Chuck Hagel’s nomination for defense secretary.

Most likely, Levin is simply trying to deny Republicans an excuse to vote against Hagel, whose confirmation had seemed assured earlier this week when John McCain and several other influential Senate Republicans ruled out the use of a filibuster. With a committee vote on Thursday looming, though, 25 Republicans – including all 12 GOP members of the committee – signed a letter demanding that it be put off.

At issue are requests that several Republican senators made during Hagel’s hearings last week for transcripts of all of his paid speeches and for records of any foreign funding received by businesses or organizations that Hagel has done work with. On Tuesday, Hagel informed the committee that he had made his best effort to provide the speech transcripts, but that some of his engagements had been private off-the-record affairs for which no texts or recordings are available. And he maintained that he’s not in position to provide any information about the funding for the companies he’s worked with, citing an “obligation to maintain the confidentiality of non-public corporate information.”

This prompted the GOP senators to write their letter, and late Wednesday Levin announced that “the committee’s review of the nomination is not yet complete” but that he still intends to hold a vote “as soon as possible.”

The information that Republicans are demanding, it should be noted, has never been required of previous nominees and sets an almost prohibitively high standard for Hagel – and, potentially, for future nominees. As Steve Clemons explains, it’s hardly unusual for a senator (or a former senator or any other public figure) to deliver an off-the-cuff speech to a small or private group and for no prepared text or recording to exist. And the expectation that Hagel or any other nominee would have the power to force a large company or organization to make its financial relationships public is both unrealistic and unreasonable.

Chances are that Levin isn’t pleased with the GOP’s stubbornness but is simply maneuvering to make it as easy as possible for Republicans to vote for the nomination. Right now, only two GOP senators have said they’ll support Hagel, while many more have indicated opposition. But around two dozen haven’t said anything. Pushing ahead with a Thursday vote in the face of the GOP senators’ letter would have given their colleagues an easy excuse to vote “no” in committee or on the Senate floor. By putting off the vote instead, Levin can take a few days and then claim that a more than reasonable effort has been made to address the senators’ concerns. This could be the difference between a party-line confirmation vote – which would be enough to get Hagel confirmed but wouldn’t exactly read like a vote of confidence – and a more lopsided final tally.

Another possibility, though, is that Levin is acting out of fear of a filibuster. While McCain reiterated his opposition to one even after Wednesday’s developments, the situation is still a bit delicate. There is vigorous opposition to Hagel on the right – enough that it’s not hard to imagine conservative opinion-shapers treating an effort by Democrats to push through Hagel’s nomination this week as a scandalous act and ramping up the pressure on Republican senators to use a filibuster to stop him. McCain alone wouldn’t be able to break a filibuster; four other Republicans would have to join with him. Theoretically, a Hagel opponent in the Senate could also place a hold on his nomination; in fact, one Republican practically volunteered to do so in an interview with Defense News on Wednesday:

Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Ranking Member James Inhofe, R-Okla., when asked by Defense News whether he would place a hold on Hagel’s nomination should it be approved by the panel, played coy.

“That could happen,” Inhofe said with a smile. “I’m not sure who would be doing it.”

For Republicans to derail Hagel’s nomination with a filibuster or a hold would set a troubling precedent. Except in the rarest of cases, presidents have traditionally been granted wide latitude by the Senate in choosing their Cabinets. All nominees get votes, most sail through easily, a few are subjected to intense grillings, and only once every generation or so is one actually rejected. For Hagel to be denied a vote on such flimsy grounds would alter that tradition.

And even if Republicans do ultimately allow a vote, it could set a new precedent if it’s a party-line affair. After all, President Obama’s party has enough senators to win a party-line confirmation vote, but what if it becomes routine for Cabinet nominations to be party-line votes? What happens when a future president’s party doesn’t enjoy a Senate majority?

Hagel is still very likely to be confirmed as defense secretary. But Democrats would prefer that the process be as smooth – and bipartisan – as possible. Which is why Levin’s decision on Wednesday, no matter how frustrating it might be for the White House and its supporters, probably makes sense.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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