US Republican senators on Thursday ignored a White House demand for a vote to confirm US President Barack Obama’s pick for defense secretary, throwing up a roadblock at a time of national security tensions.
Democrats fell one vote short of overcoming the procedural delay and clearing the way for final consideration of Chuck Hagel.
Republicans had sought more time to receive and study responses to questions that they said remained unanswered.
The delay means the confirmation vote for Hagel will most likely happen about 10 days from now after a one-week Senate recess.
Obama called the move “unfortunate,” while furious Senate Democrats insisted their rivals were more concerned with political point-scoring than ensuring the defense department was adequately represented.
Democrat Majority Leader Harry Reid took to the floor immediately after the vote to rail against the move, which he saw as “embarrassing the president” at a time of strain in the Middle East, ongoing war in Afghanistan and North Korea recently testing a nuclear device.
In a separate statement, Reid expressed bafflement about what he described as “one of the saddest spectacles I have witnessed in my 27 years in the Senate.”
The defeat does not doom Hagel’s nomination to lead the Pentagon in Obama’s second term, and Reid has already said that he would call another procedural vote on Feb. 26, the first working day after next week’s break.
“I think we all need to take a deep breath,” a White House official said on condition of anonymity. “Senator Hagel is going to be confirmed ... when the Senate returns from recess.”
Before allowing a vote, Republicans had demanded more information on Hagel’s finances and on Obama’s role in responding to an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last year.
Reid responded by trying to force a vote on the nomination. With Democrats holding a 55-45 edge in the Senate, he needed five Republicans to get to the 60 votes needed to overcome the blocking tactics. He got only four.
Without such a filibuster, presidential nominations require a simple majority of senators in the 100-seat chamber — a barrier Hagel is virtually assured of surpassing.
Obama said it was the first time that a defense secretary nominee had been filibustered.
However, in a “Google fireside hangout” filmed at the White House, he said “my expectation and hope is that Chuck Hagel, who richly deserves to get a vote on the floor of the Senate, will be confirmed as our defense secretary.”
“It’s just kind of unfortunate that this kind of politics intrudes at a time when I am still presiding over a war in Afghanistan and I need a secretary of defense who is coordinating with our allies to make sure our troops are getting the kind of strategy and mission that they deserve,” Obama said.
The White House said that Hagel had been expected to appear at a NATO ministerial meeting next week in Brussels to discuss the pull-out from Afghanistan.
Outgoing US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had already announced plans to leave Washington and return to California, but Pentagon spokesman George Little said Panetta “will attend the NATO ministerial in Brussels next week and will continue to carry out his duties as secretary of defense.”