WASHINGTON — Immediately after blocking Chuck Hagel's nomination to be secretary of defense, top Republicans took to the Senate floor to claim that, no, they were not filibustering. They just needed more time.
A filibuster occurs when a minority of senators declines to vote to invoke what's called "cloture," which sets a deadline to complete debate on a nomination or bill and forces an up or down vote. It takes 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to obtain cloture.
By that measure, Thursday's 58-40 vote was a clear-cut filibuster. Angry Democrats said the vote to deny cloture on Hagel's nomination was a historic, first-ever successful filibuster of a Cabinet nominee and the first time the party in the Senate's minority had ever even tried the move against a defense secretary nominee.
"If this is not a filibuster, I'd like to see what a filibuster was," an angry Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said.
But Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., shot back that it was Reid who provoked Republicans into the vote by scheduling it too soon. The Armed Services Committee had just approved the nomination two days before, and Republicans were still seeking information from Hagel. They engaged in talks with top Democrats to try to lock in a vote when the Senate returns from a one-week recess.
"This is a vote by Republicans to say, `We want more than two days after this nomination comes to the floor to carefully consider it, because we have questions,'" Alexander said.
Wrong, said Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois: "There is no other way to describe what we are going through than a filibuster."
Republicans promised that enough of their members will vote to permit the former Republican senator from Nebraska's nomination to advance when the Senate returns to Washington the week of Feb. 25. And several Republicans took to the floor to deny that Thursday's vote was a filibuster and to predict that Hagel ultimately will be confirmed.
"This is not any attempt to kill this nomination," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "This is not a filibuster."
In the Senate, it can take just one senator to force a cloture vote, even if there's clear sentiment for an up-or-down vote. That's part of the reason why Republicans say that just because there's been a failed cloture vote, it doesn't mean there's been a filibuster.
On the other hand, several Republicans, like Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, say they want to require Hagel to cross the 60-vote threshold no matter what. That undercuts the GOP argument for calling it a filibuster.
Either way, it's a rare set of circumstances. According to the Senate's historian, Donald Ritchie, just 5 percent of Cabinet nominations have been killed by the Senate or withdrawn when confirmation appeared impossible. And only twice has a Cabinet-level nominee been subject to a cloture vote. It's far more common to filibuster judicial nominees.
Ritchie says that's partly because "judicial appointments are for life, and Cabinet appointments rarely last the full length of a presidential administration."