Filibuster Temporarily Delays Hagel Nomination: Everybody Wins!

Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) talks with committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) as they arrive for Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing on January 31, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It’s been a long and stupid week, and it’s not over, so allow me to describe why everybody won something just now. The Senate voted, by a 58-40 margin, to continue debate on Chuck Hagel’s nomination to run the Pentagon. (“Continuing debate” is nearly a figure of speech—the Senate’s heading home, and the arguments will continue off the floor, on TV and radio shows.) Shortly before the roll closed, there were 59 votes to end debate, one short of the 60 needed to continue. The margin only fell because Sen. Harry Reid switched, reserving the right to bring up the vote again on February 26. Sen. Orrin Hatch decided to add a graf to every story by voting “present”; he’d told me yesterday that he “wasn’t there yet” on the nomination or the cloture question.

There is one sucker tonight: Chuck Hagel. He botched up his confirmation hearing, giving Republicans all kinds of reasons to oppose him. (In his “no” statement, Sen. Mark Kirk, who was never undecided on Hagel, continues to pretend that Hagel’s “elected” government of Iran gaffe was a window into his real thinking, as opposed to lazy verbiage.) He has to wait 12 days for the Senate to take up his nomination again. In that time, he has to endure more reports and rumors about his past speeches (nothing since the “Jewish lobby” comment has damaged his chances so far), and he probably has to shut up, which seems difficult for him.

But for the first ever filibuster of a national security nominee—the first ever of one of the original Cabinet positions inaugurated in 1789—this thing really split the baby. Everybody seems to win something.

Senate Republicans have humiliated the administration, yet again, three mere weeks after filibuster reform passed. Those Republicans who grew to dislike Hagel (i.e., most of them) have humbled him. The humbling of a nominee doesn’t usually stay active once the confirmation votes come in—ask Sam Alito or Clarence Thomas—but it’s empowering, and it’s pleased the Lobby Which Cannot Be Named. “The Emergency Committee for Israel salutes the Senators who courageously voted today to prevent the rubber-stamping of Chuck Hagel as the next Secretary of Defense,” said Bill Kristol in a post-vote statement. Which brings me to…

The Anti-Hagelians. The scrappy, outnumbered troika of the Washington Free Beacon, Breitbart.com, and Jennifer Rubin have enabled an historic filibuster of a media darling. Rubin, who was given first crack at Ted Cruz’s letter asking for a longer Hagel debate, was proven right—Republicans Luntzified their language and claimed that they could delay Hagel without actually filibustering him. But that just satisfied…

Senate Democrats, who made Republicans into the villains on a vote they’ll eventually lose. Before and after the vote, Senate Republicans put themselves in the absurd position of pretending that the filibuster was not actually a filibuster. “I know that’s the headline the majority leader wants,” groaned Texas Sen. John Cornyn. Well, yes. Because it was true. It also allowed Reid to blame “the Tea Party,” and not the far more politically popular defenders of Israel, for the delay. Last month started with reporters like Chuck Todd seeing “a soft count of 10 no votes” from Democrats. In the end, every single Democrat backed Hagel, denying the opposition any serious claim that the party was divided. Which is good for…

The White House, which was in the ridiculous position of having to re-re-re-reassure reporters that a nominee with majority support in the Senate was not dropping out. My friend Tim Mak captured the absurdity of this last Friday, when exactly two people—Tom Ricks and Bill Kristol—speculated that Hagel could withdraw. Hagel has now moved through committee and come within a single vote of cloture, while multiple Republicans (Bob Corker, John McCain, Lindsey Graham) say they’re ready to vote to proceed, given 12 days to demand more info. It’s just preposterous, now, to ask the White House whether a nominee with 59 votes and a reputation on the line will cry and give up.