WASHINGTON - The Senate's top Democrat attacked Republican senators Thursday for blocking Chuck Hagel's nomination to be President Barack Obama's next secretary of defense, saying it was "shocking" and "tragic" that the GOP would attempt such a move at a time when the U.S. military is engaged in so many places around the world.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Republicans are filibustering Hagel's confirmation and that such a move is unprecedented. "Not a single nominee for secretary of defense ever in the history of our country has been filibustered," the Nevada Democrat said. "Never, ever."
A demand by Republican senators that the White House give them more information about what Obama was doing on the night of the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, has the effect of a filibuster. 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.
The White House responded on Wednesday afternoon to the GOP's request for information about Benghazi, according to Reid. "But now Republicans say this is not enough, and are moving the goal posts at the last minute," Reid said. "This is no way to operate."
A full Senate vote on Hagel, a former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska and twice-wounded Vietnam combat 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 an up-or-down vote on him. Two Republicans - Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Mike Johanns of Nebraska - have announced their support for Hagel.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he'll vote against ending debate on Hagel's nomination, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and other Republicans may join him if the White House doesn't tell them whether Obama spoke to any Libyan government official about getting assistance during the assault on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi. U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died in the raid last September.
"There seems to not be much interest to hold this president accountable for a national security breakdown that led to the first ambassador being killed in the line of duty in over 30 years," Graham said Wednesday. "No, the debate on Chuck Hagel is not over. It has not been serious. We don't have the information we need. And I'm going to fight the idea of jamming somebody through until we get answers about what the president did personally when it came to the Benghazi debacle."
McCain declined to say whether he would try to delay Hagel's confirmation if Obama did not provide an answer. "My position right now is I want an answer to the question," he said.
The nomination of John Brennan as CIA director is also being delayed; the Senate Intelligence Committee is pushing off a vote amid demands that the White House turn over more details about drone strikes against terror suspects and about the Benghazi attacks. Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein of California said a vote likely will be postponed till late February.
A bitterly divided Armed Services Committee on Tuesday voted to approve Hagel by a 14-11 vote, with all the panel's Democrats backing him. The committee's Republicans were unified in opposition to their onetime colleague, who will succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta if he's confirmed
Obama "stands strongly" behind Hagel and believes he "will do a wonderful job," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said aboard Air Force One en route to Decatur, Ga., where the president was scheduled to speak about early childhood education.
If confirmed by the Senate, Hagel, 66, would take charge of the U.S. armed forces at a time of turmoil. Automatic cuts to the Pentagon's budget are looming, American troops in Afghanistan are being halved over the next year, North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon, Iran remains a threat in the Persian Gulf region, and Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Mali and Tunisia all are in a state of unrest.
Reid said incorrectly that Panetta is departing his post Thursday, leaving the federal government's largest agency without a leader because Hagel has not been confirmed. But Panetta, who is retiring after 18 months in the job and will return to California, has committed to waiting until his successor is approved.
At a Pentagon award ceremony on Thursday for former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Panetta said it was fitting to recognize her accomplishments on Valentine's Day. And he said the second-best Valentine's Day present would be for the Senate to confirm Hagel and allow Panetta and his wife to "get the hell out of town." He said he's got his belongings packed.
Hagel has faced intense opposition from Republicans, who have challenged his past statements and votes on Israel, Iran, Iraq and nuclear weapons.
But the questions and comments before the Armed Services Committee vote on Tuesday took a more personal and confrontational turn. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, demanded that Hagel provide information on compensation for speeches over a five-year period - three years more than required - and suggested that without the information, the committee wouldn't know whether Hagel got money from "extreme and radical groups."
Reports about Iranian leaders praising Hagel's nomination back up Cruz's claim, said Sen. James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I'd say he's endorsed by them. You can't get any cozier than that," Inhofe said.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Donna Cassata and Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.