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The Cruz-ing of the Senate

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A funny thing happened at the Senate Armed Services Committee vote on Chuck Hagel, this week. Senator Ted Cruz, who is quickly making a name for himself as a modern-day Joe McCarthy, turned a normal committee vote into his own personal circus, making outlandish smear after outlandish smear against Chuck Hagel that earned the ire not just of senators in the room, but Capitol Hill newspapers, national media, and even his home state newspaper.

Thing of it is, Ted Cruz might be crazy, but he's not stupid or insane. Cruz knows very well who his base is: The increasingly shrill far right, which want to see vicious opposition to anything President Obama says, does, or proposes. People have joked, with some degree of truth, that if President Obama came out against drinking Drano, Tea Party Congressmen and senators would immediately go out and chug gallons of it.

This point surely hasn't been lost on Senator Lindsay Graham. Graham, once upon a time, was known as a Republican in the mold of his friend, pre-2008 John McCain. Someone willing to buck his own party from time to time. Someone with a bit of reason. It hasn't escaped Graham's attention that other senators who ever moderated have become targets of primaries by Cruz-esque candidates -- former Senator Richard Lugar and Senator Orrin Hatch among them. Others have been forced into retirement, fearing a primary.

And so, Lindsey Graham, who is up for re-election in 2014, searched around for what issue was whipping the fringe up the most, and found it in Benghazi. With it, he's now doing his best Cruz imitation, threatening to hold up the nomination of Chuck Hagel, until President Obama engages him on the issue, which has been litigated time and time again in the media and in hearings. For Graham, it's a double-whammy. He gets to champion the latest conspiracy theory of the wacko right and shut down the Senate over an Obama nominee that has nothing to do with the issue.

Previously, Senator McCain stood steadfastly against using procedural hurdles to stop the confirmation vote on Hagel -- conjuring up a little bit of the old McCain. Then, today, in a sharp turnaround, McCain said he isn't sure if he'll support a filibuster. What happened? Easy. Lindsey Graham called him and said he needs to get more juice out of this show, for the fringe primary voters in South Carolina. So, McCain is helping him out.

So, this is where we are. In the new Senate, Republicans who fear a primary either retire or try to out-crazy each other. With Hagel, first it was Israel, then it was nukes, then it was Benghazi. (At what point does it become about Afghanistan and our troops who are still in the field?)

This week, Ted Cruz stole all of the headlines in the committee vote. So, now, Lindsey Graham has to out-do him, to steal back those headlines to tout back home. Guaranteed, when the next nominee comes about -- for Secretary of Labor or Energy -- another senator or two or ten will pull the same insanity.

In the end, though, this is just smoke blowing, for politics. When push comes to shove, there won't be a filibuster, for two reasons. First, because a lot of senators will need Chuck Hagel when he becomes Defense Secretary. He'll be the key to keeping military bases and projects in their states. Second, I know Harry Reid, and he'll cancel the Senate's upcoming vacation until there is a vote on Hagel. And if there's one thing Senators love more than anything, it's their vacations.

Unfortunately, though, this battle over the old and new Republican factions has many casualties. VoteVets.org, which I head, knows this very well, after spending $7 million on senate races, in states that were only competitive because the rational alternative lost their primary. It's a travesty that their internal battles have scared senators like Graham so deeply that it has led to our troops being held hostage.

It's a disgrace that it has rendered debate around issues important to troops irrelevant, in this circus still dominated by weak leaders who are more concerned with electability than our military. In the end, it ironically stands in stark contrast to Senator Hagel himself, who never backed down from a fight with the leaders of his own party over a troops' or veterans' issue during his lifetime, despite deep political consequences that has led to the political theatre surrounding his nomination.

UPDATE: And, the Republicans went further than I had ever expected. We now have the first filibuster of a Defense Secretary in the history of the United States. The reason in our entire history that there's never been a filibuster of a Secretary of Defense nominee, until today, is simple. Our enemies look for any moment - however brief - of weakness. Now, because of Republican obstruction, our Department of Defense is in limbo, handing those who would attack and kill Americans a golden opportunity. The vote to filibuster Chuck Hagel's nomination by Republicans is a disgrace, and the GOP is now holding America's security and its troops hostage.