Senate, White House struggle over secretary of defense nominee impasse

Senators seek info on president's actions during Benghazi attack

By Richard Lardner

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Feb. 14 2013 1:09 p.m. MST

Republican Chuck Hagel, a former two-term senator and President Obama's choice to lead the Pentagon, arrives at the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013.

Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats and the White House struggled to break an impasse Thursday over Chuck Hagel's nomination as secretary of defense, with Republicans blocking speedy confirmation of their former colleague and Vietnam combat veteran.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid accused the GOP of filibustering Hagel's nomination, a move he described as unprecedented for a president's pick for defense secretary. Reid, D-Nev., needs only a few Republican votes to secure the 60 needed to clear Hagel's nomination for an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor.

But those remaining yes votes remain elusive. Republican senators, led by Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, vowed to delay the process unless they got more information about what President Barack Obama was doing on the night of the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, where Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed. Their demand has the effect of a filibuster.

Seeking to break the logjam, the White House responded to a Feb. 12 letter from Graham, McCain and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. to Obama asking whether he spoke to any Libyan government official during the Sept. 11 assault about getting assistance.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf on Obama's behalf on Sept. 11 to coordinate additional support to protect Americans in Libya, White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler wrote in the Feb. 14 response. Obama spoke to Magariaf on the evening of Sept. 12, she said.

A White House official said there was no new information in Ruemmler's letter. The fact of Clinton's call to Magariaf has previously been public. If there were a need to push the Libyans to do something, Obama would have called, but the Libyans were trying to do the right thing and were being as helpful as possible, the official said.

The official, discussing internal communications only on the condition of anonymity, said that it wasn't clear that an earlier call from Obama to the Libyans would have been helpful in the deadly, fast-moving assault.

The offices of Graham, McCain and Ayotte did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Ruemmler's letter.

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.

Reid said Republicans notified him Wednesday night they would withhold the votes needed to advance Hagel's nomination. Reid said he considered that a "full-scale filibuster" because the Republican strategy would prevent Hagel's nomination from getting the required 60 votes.

Republicans are seeking "extraneous requests" for information that will never be satisfied, Reid said. "The pattern has been clear for months: as soon as President Obama's administration responds to one request, Republicans devise another, more outlandish request," Reid said.

A full Senate vote on Hagel, a former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska and twice-wounded Vietnam veteran, is expected to be held Friday after Reid filed a motion to limit debate. While Democrats hold a 55-45 edge in the Senate and have the numbers to confirm Hagel on a majority vote, they need the support of five Republicans to clear the way for a majority vote.

Two Republicans — Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Mike Johanns of Nebraska — have announced their support for Hagel. A third, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, has said she will vote against Hagel's confirmation, but she would not join in a filibuster to block a final vote.

Graham said Wednesday that he would vote against ending debate on Hagel's nomination.

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