WASHINGTON - Senate Republicans on Thursday stalled the nomination of former GOP senator Chuck Hagel as the nation's next defense secretary over unrelated questions about President Barack Obama's actions in the aftermath of the deadly raid on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya. Democrats called the vote "tragic" and vowed to revive the nomination after Congress' weeklong break.
By 58-40, with one abstention, the Senate fell short of the 60-vote threshold required to advance Hagel's nomination to a final, up-or-down vote on his confirmation. Four Republicans voted with Democrats to end the debate and proceed to a final vote: Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine and Mike Johanns of Nebraska.
President Barack Obama reacted immediately, accusing Republicans of playing politics with the nation at war.
At the last minute, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., switched his vote from yes to no, a procedural move that allows him to revive the nomination after the break. He set the vote for Feb. 26.
"Just when you thought things couldn't get worse, it gets worse," the Democratic leader lamented of the chamber's bitter partisanship.
The successful Republican effort to block a vote on Hagel leaves one of the most contentious nominations of the Obama presidency in limbo, although the White House expressed confidence that the former Republican senator would eventually win Senate confirmation.
Republicans had been blocking the confirmation of their former colleague and Vietnam veteran until they received information from the White House on when Obama contacted Libyan officials after the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi last September in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
The White House responded to that request earlier Thursday, saying Obama spoke with Libyans a day after the attack.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona led the opposition to Hagel's confirmation, but he said he would not object to the test vote, called cloture.
The White House responded to questions about Benghazi by saying former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf on Obama's behalf on Sept. 11, the day of the attack, to coordinate additional support to protect Americans in Libya. White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said Obama spoke to Magariaf on the evening of Sept. 12.
The Obama administration also had disclosed the calls at the time they were made.
A White House official said Thursday that if there had been a need to push the Libyans to do something, Obama would have called, but the official said the Libyans were trying to do the right thing and were being as helpful as possible. Moreover, the official, discussing internal communications only on the condition of anonymity, said the earlier call with Clinton had gone well.
Reid said it was "shocking" and "tragic" that the GOP would attempt to block Hagel's nomination at a time when the U.S. military is engaged in so many places around the world. "Not a single nominee for secretary of defense ever in the history of our country has been filibustered," he said in a speech on the Senate floor.