What The Hagel ‘Filibuster’ Is Really About

It looks an awful lot like Friday’s vote to break the GOP’s Chuck Hagel filibuster will fall short, leaving his nomination in limbo while the Senate recesses for President’s Day.

If that’s how things shake out, you’ll hear a lot from Democrats about how Republicans have set a dangerous new precedent, while Republicans will counter that they would have set aside their objections if Democrats had just fork over more information (about Hagel, Benghazi, god knows what else).

The truth is we haven’t moved beyond the realm of typical, tedious Senate obstruction — at least not yet. Today’s dust up is much more about intra-Senate squabbling over the idea that holds should be honored than it is a reflection of the GOP’s ultimate intentions vis-a-vis Hagel.This all gets obscured in the fog of Senate procedure, but it’s important because there really is a compelling interest in not establishing a precedent in which designated cabinet members face routine filibusters.

It’s highly unusual for a cabinet-level nominee to need 60 votes for confirmation, let alone for them to fail to muster 60 votes. But it’s not unprecedented for senators – even members of the president’s own party – to place holds on cabinet-level nominees. And a hold is nothing but a threat to require a 60-vote threshold on a nominee or a bill unless and until some extraneous issue is resolved. Normally the way this plays out is that the majority leader honors the hold, the holding member works out some understanding with the leader or the administration, and the hold is released.

But that’s not what Harry Reid did this time. Instead, he filed cloture on Hagel’s nomination in effective defiance of Republicans placing the holds.

Set aside for the moment whether you think all of these ludicrous Senate norms are in fact ludicrous. If Reid hadn’t filed cloture and instead mollified Lindsey Graham and James Inhofe, Hagel probably could have received an up-or-down vote right off the bat, perhaps a few days later than Democrats would have wanted. At the very least, Reid could have secured a 60th vote to break an unsustainable filibuster. Instead, we’ll be treated to a big show when Republicans block Hagel on the Senate floor tomorrow, and then to a quiet resolution a few days down the road when Graham gets his answers on Benghazi and drops his objections.

In other words, we may have reached unprecedented heights of senatorial preening about a cabinet nominee. But unless and until President Obama’s forced to withdraw Hagel or someone else because of a filibuster, we’re not too far beyond the sort of dilatory obstruction other presidents’ nominees have faced in the past.

Now I think it’s completely appropriate for Reid to sweat Republicans, force them to make good on their filibuster threat, make noise about their obstruction. Because this is obstruction. The crusade against Hagel has been unusually nasty. And we are only a couple weeks out from a Senate rules reform agreement which was supposed to avoid dilatory tactics just like these. But it’s too soon to say we’ve crossed into uncharted territory where Senate minorities will routinely deny the President the cabinet of his choosing.

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