WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans are following through on their threat to filibuster former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), President Barack Obama's nominee for defense secretary, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Thursday morning.
"It is tragic that they have decided to filibuster this qualified nominee," said Reid. "It is really unfortunate."
The significance of Reid's announcement wasn't immediately clear, as he gave no indication as to whether or not Democrats had the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster attempt. It was only after Reid finished speaking that a Democratic Senate aide confirmed that the majority leader doesn't yet have the votes to overcome a Hagel filibuster.
It was assumed that many Republicans would vote against Hagel but allow his nomination to come to an up-or-down vote. Reid said that blocking Hagel through procedural means would be unprecedented.
"This isn't high school getting ready for a football game, or some play being produced at a high school," said Reid. "In less than two hours, our country will be without a secretary of defense."
The first vote on Hagel's nomination will come on Friday. If Reid can muster 60 yes votes by then, the chamber will begin a debate period. After that, there will be a final vote on Saturday.
It is customary for a president to be granted the leeway to choose his own advisers. But Hagel was a controversial choice among his fellow Republicans, owing to his public criticisms of President George W. Bush's foreign policy, his advocacy for confronting Iran's nuclear program via diplomatic means and his past criticisms of the Israeli lobby's influence within the halls of Congress.
Speaking on the floor, however, Reid said that Republicans were holding up the nomination because of the administration's refusal to release additional information about the September attacks on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya.
"Chuck Hagel had nothing to do with the attack in Benghazi," Reid said.
The last defense secretary who was not confirmed by the Senate was John Tower, whose admission of past personal transgressions led to his nomination's downfall by a vote of 53 to 47 in 1989. That was a defeat via regular order, not a filibuster.
UPDATE: 11:30 p.m. -- One of the issues holding up Hagel's nomination appears to be requests from Republicans in the Senate to receive specific intelligence about the Benghazi attack, intelligence that Reid insists has already been provided. In a statement issued after his floor speech, Reid said that the White House had sent Republicans a letter about the attack at 4:00 p.m. on Wednesday, the latest of a series of attempts by the administration to assuage their concerns about the incident.
That letter, however, was "not enough" for them, according to Reid.
They "are moving the goals posts at the last minute," he said. "This is no way to operate."
CNN's Dana Bash, however, spoke to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- one of the senators who has most vocally demanded answers about Benghazi but who has also said he was against the idea of filibustering a cabinet nominee -– and got a different explanation. The letter, McCain said, was sent to Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.), not Senate Republicans.
just in: mccain tells CNN he hasnt seen letter the wh sent last night re behngazi & doesnt know if he'll vote against filibuster tomorrow
— Dana Bash (@DanaBashCNN) February 14, 2013
Hagel's own spokesman, meanwhile, acknowledged on Thursday that he could end up being rejected by the Senate.
“He could be defeated, but he’s not withdrawing," Aaron Dowd told National Journal. "It’s not something anyone is discussing."
UPDATE: 11:50 p.m. -- The White House has now weighed in.
"We urge the Republicans in the Senate to drop their delay," said spokesman Josh Earnest, briefing reporters en route to the president's speech in Georgia. "There is a clear majority in the United States Senate for Senator Hagel's confirmation. These delaying tactics are unconscionable, and they should end right away."
Meanwhile, an official working to help Hagel get confirmed offers the following whip count:
We have 55 Dems and Independents on board for cloture, plus Senators Johanns and Cochran (the Republicans who’ve announced they’re voting for Hagel’s nomination). Add onto that Susan Collins saying she will vote for cloture yesterday, and we need two more votes to get to 60. That’s the state of play right now.
UPDATE: 1:15 p.m. -- Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) have reportedly said they will also vote for cloture -- but only after the President's Day recess, which lasts through the end of next week.
Sam Stein's wife works for the Obama administration on matters of congressional oversight.