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Reid, Heller divided on historic Hagel block


Steve Marcus

Sens. Dean Heller, left, and Harry Reid attend a Memorial Day ceremony in Boulder City on May 30, 2011.

Click to enlarge photo

Republican Chuck Hagel, President Obama's choice for defense secretary, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013.

For the first time in history, the Senate blocked a defense secretary nominee who had received prior approval of the Armed Services Committee.

“Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, it gets worse,” Sen. Harry Reid said, chastising all but four Republican senators for an “embarrassing display of disregard for our national security” in voting against moving ahead on former Vietnam veteran and Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination to take over from Leon Panetta at the Defense Department Thursday.

The Senate came just one vote shy of securing the 60 votes that would have been necessary to all but settle Hagel’s confirmation. But Republicans blamed Reid for forcing them to make a rush judgment, only two days after the Armed Services Committee approved Hagel’s Cabinet bid on a party-line vote.

“I’m going to vote no,” Nevada Sen. Dean Heller said before the vote. “I think there’s some questions that need to be answered.”

Republicans have launched several objections against Hagel, accusing him of being soft on Iran and weak on Israel. But their latest argument boils down to a procedural complaint: Hagel still hasn’t furnished answers to lingering questions about his financial disclosures.

“We’ll come back a week from now, and if those questions have been answered, then we’ll go ahead,” Heller said. “If he produces those background disclosures, I think he becomes the next secretary of defense.”

The block pushes off another vote on Hagel’s nomination for at least 10 days, as Congress is scheduled to be out of Washington for Presidents Day week. After then, Reid said, they will try again. But there’s no guarantee of a different outcome.

“There’s nothing that's going to change in the next 10 days about the qualifications of Chuck Hagel,” Reid said. “We have a war going on in Afghanistan … North Korea earlier this week tested nuclear weapons … The Middle East is in turmoil and Iran is still threatening everyone, including us … it would be nice if we had a secretary of defense.”

If Hagel’s bid is to be successful, at least one Republican will have to flip sides at the next vote.

It’s unlikely that Heller will be their guy.

“I do have some issues on some of [Hagel’s] answers during the [Armed Services] hearing,” Heller said, declining to elaborate, but adding that he would “probably not” be comfortable with Hagel as secretary of defense.

Democrats are closely eyeing Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the only “present” vote on Thursday, to change his vote the next time around.

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