For those following at home, today's developments:=
- 58 senators, from states representing roughly two-thirds of the nation's population, voted in favor of acting on Chuck Hagel's nomination as secretary of defense. At least 55 of those senators would have voted to confirm Hagel. [Update: as explained below*, the "real" number of senators who wanted a vote was 59, not 58.]
- Nominations for this job have never before been subject to filibuster, or other than a simple majority vote.
- Nonetheless, the 40 senators who oppose Hagel [actually, 39 senators*], from states representing about one-third of the U.S. population, are blocking, for the first time ever, a president's ability to fill this role in his Cabinet.
4039 senators forcing this blockage don't want what they're doing to be called a "filibuster," because late in the game (after six years of filibustering everything) they have become nervous about this term. But it is the only honest description of what a minority that includes Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, each of whom has said he wouldn't "filibuster" this nomination, is doing now.
To look on the bright side, here are the four Republicans who broke with their party in this obstructionist move: Senators Cochran of Mississippi, Collins of Maine, Johanns of Nebraska, and Murkowski of Alaska all voted against a filibuster.
Today's installment of double-speak, as reported in the WaPo:
Republicans denied that their actions constituted a filibuster because they expect Hagel to be confirmed, and they insisted they will allow a simple-majority vote on the nomination later this month.
Sure, that makes sense.
* As several readers have mentioned and as I should have made clear the first time around, Majority Leader Harry Reid switched his vote to "No" before final totals were recorded, although he obviously supports the nomination. This is a familiar ploy for Senate-procedural reasons; it made Reid part of the winning side of this vote and put him in a position to ask for its reconsideration later. So the real vote would have been 59 in favor and 39 opposed, with the 39 prevailing.
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. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the new book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which has been a New York Times best seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary.