WASHINGTON — With Republicans balking, the Senate put off a confirmation vote on former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense.
Requiring 60 votes, a move to cut off debate on the nomination failed to pass on a 58-40 vote. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, voted present. Florida's senators split their votes: Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, voted yes; Republican Sen. Marco Rubio voted no.
The unsuccessful vote ended a contentious day in which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused Republicans of filibustering the nomination and Republicans griped about not having enough time and information to properly vet Hagel.
"The Republicans have made an unfortunate choice to ratchet up the levels of obstruction here in Washington," Reid said on the Senate floor after the vote. "Just when you thought things couldn't get worse, it gets worse."
Republicans called the vote an unnecessary action and a self-inflicted wound by Democrats.
"This is not any attempt to kill this nomination," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "This is not a filibuster. I realize that's the headline that the majority leader would like the newspapers to write."
Thursday's action did not scuttle Hagel's nomination, but it could make it more difficult. Another vote to end debate in the Senate likely will occur when the Senate returns from a weeklong recess, a move that some Republican senators were seeking Thursday afternoon.
The additional 10 days could provide Hagel opponents more time to find damaging information that could potentially harm his chances to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. In the meantime, it's likely to be a tense 10 days between the White House and Senate Republicans.
Obama stood by Hagel on Thursday and chided Republicans for forcing a delay.
"We've never had a secretary of defense filibustered before," Obama said Thursday during an online appearance on Google.
He said it was his "expectation and hope" that Hagel will be confirmed, saying that he needs his choice for defense secretary as the United States continues to wind down the war in Afghanistan and that it was "unfortunate this type of politics" occurs. Hagel, Obama said, "was a member of the Republican caucus, a colleague of all these folks." And, he said, he's "imminently qualified to be defense secretary."
Deputy White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Panetta will stay on the job until a new defense secretary is confirmed.
Led by Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and James Inhofe of Oklahoma, some senators have raised questions about controversial statements Hagel made in the past about Israel, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and nuclear weapons.
"What we're doing here is saying, 'The debate for Sen. Hagel is not over yet, since he just got (approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee) Tuesday at 5 p.m.," said Graham, a member of the committee who aggressively questioned the former Nebraska Republican senator during a confirmation hearing this week. "And put yourselves in the shoes of colleagues who are not on this committee."
Graham noted that former Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., sailed through his confirmation hearing to become secretary of state and received 97 Senate votes quickly because "all of us felt comfortable with the nomination."
Reid and other Senate Democrats insisted that failing to move on a defense secretary nomination was an unprecedented action and a move by Republicans that put politics ahead the nation's priorities.
"It is unwise," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee. "The (Defense) Department is facing a budget crisis that was described as a 10 on the scale of one to 10 by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. So a filibuster at this time of a budget crisis is exceptionally ill-advised. Leaving the Department of Defense leaderless at a time when we are in an Afghan conflict, when North Korea just exploded a nuclear device, is exceptionally ill-advised."
Republicans countered that it was unwise for Reid to call for the procedural vote knowing that some senators still had questions and serious doubts about Hagel.
"We're not filibustering, and we don't want to string this thing out," Inhofe said. "This vote is the vote on Chuck Hagel. It's not on procedure or anything else. It's a vote on Chuck Hagel."