A Filibuster for Chuck Hagel?

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I am still working on the State of the Union special-bonus annotated edition, which will take a few more hours. But in the meantime I had to mention a late twist in the ongoing Chuck Hagel saga that is too important to ignore.

As has been evident for some time, Hagel has majority support in the Senate for his confirmation as secretary of defense. As has become increasingly evident these past few days, much of the opposition to Hagel has become a parody of itself. Former Republican Senator and foreign-policy grandee Richard Lugar, himself the victim of a Tea Party challenge, said yesterday that the attack on Hagel was "unfortunate and unfair." Meanwhile the publisher of the Omaha World Herald answered allegations that Hagel (who represented Nebraska) was anti-Semitic with an article headlined, "Impressive Omaha Jewish Support for Chuck Hagel," and Aryeh Azriel, the rabbi at Temple Israel in Omaha, said that accusations that Hagel was anti-Israel were "extremely stupid."

The new development is reported by Josh Rogin on Foreign Policy's The Cable blog, which says that several Republicans intend to filibuster Hagel's nomination -- but are looking for some way to weasel around the word "filibuster." They don't like that word (a) because they have tried to normalize the idea that a 60-vote super-majority threshold, which is the margin required to break a filibuster, should be seen as the routine requirement for Senate action of any sort; (b) because several prominent Republicans, including John McCain, have already said that they don't want to filibuster Hagel; and (c) because in the long history of Cabinet-level nominations, outright filibusters are either unknown or exceedingly rare. You can get all the details on their extreme rarity from the Congressional Research Service.

Rogin points out the machinations through which the Republican opponents of Hagel (a Republican) are trying to insist on a 60-vote threshold without calling it a filibuster. For instance, he quotes our old friend Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, plus Sen. John Cornyn of Texas:

Inhofe's demand for 60 votes is related to his overall objection to Hagel becoming defense secretary, which is based on Hagel's past record on issues ranging from Iran, Israel, Hamas, and cuts to the defense budget. Inhofe also wants Hagel to further disclose financial records related to his past speeches.

"We're going to require a 60-vote threshold," Inhofe told The Cable.

Cornyn told The Cable, "There is a 60-vote threshold for every nomination."

Cornyn may think that, but it is not so. As a matter of history, it has obviously not been the case for Cabinet nominations; and as a matter of legality, it is true only if the opposition is willing to transform the balance of American politics by filibustering every nominee.

Turn to Rogin for more, including curlicues like this (emphasis added):

Inhofe insisted that his demand for a 60-vote threshold is not a "filibuster." Inhofe said he will object to unanimous consent for a simple majority vote, which will prevent Reid from bringing the Hagel nomination to the floor without first filing for cloture, which requires 60 votes to proceed to a final vote.

"It's not a filibuster. I don't want to use that word," Inhofe said.

It may be a distinction without a difference, but it's a distinction that GOP senators like McCain are prepared to embrace. McCain has repeatedly said he is opposed to filibustering Hagel but told The Cable Tuesday that he would vote against a cloture vote this week if the White House doesn't provide the information he has requested on the president's actions the night of the Benghazi attack.

I've long been agnostic on whether Chuck Hagel is the "best possible" nominee for this job. He's certainly a plausible one -- and people in a better position to know than I am, including Republican appointees Robert Gates, Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft, and George Schultz, have strongly endorsed him. But I am anything but agnostic about the tactics being used against Hagel. They started with personal smears, and they've led to this new version of Congressional obstructionism. It will be a shame all around if these tactics "work." This is a fight the administration should take on, and be sure it wins.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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