Reporter’s Notebook: Mopping Up the Messy Chuck Hagel Vote

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., takes a call outside the Senate chamber on Thursday outside a GOP caucus meeting. (Photo by John T. Bennett | Defense News)

The scene for about five hours Thursday afternoon on the Senate side of the Capitol was nothing shy of controlled chaos. Senators, staffers and journalists darted about from gaggle to gaggle, meeting to meeting like frenzied bees around a nest.

Check for our coverage from a memorable Thursday — there’s more to come in the next few days as we wrestle with what it all means. But it’s the nature of the journalism business that some things don’t make it into published coverage. After the jump are some leftover nuggets from your correspondent’s notebook and recorder as we mop up the messy first round of the Hagel nomination.

‘Larry Brown Strategy’. Your correspondent remembers more than a few nights sitting in the now-demolished Charlotte Coliseum as then-Indiana Pacers Coach Larry Brown stretched out the game when his team was trailing the then-Charlotte Hornets.

Brown was the master at extending a game, trying to give his players every opportunity to steal a victory. He would instruct his players to begin fouling late in the fourth quarter earlier than other coaches. And he would call every timeout he had. It worked a few times, largely because three-point specialist Reggie Miller would use the extra possessions to shoot the Pacers back into those games.

By striking an official deal with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that allowed the GOP to extend their filibuster through Feb. 25, the Senate’s Republicans have pulled a Larry Brown. They’ve extended the game. And now they have 10 more days to find something from Hagel’s past that might kill his nomination — and, perhaps more importantly to them, embarrass President Obama.

Return of the Three Amigos. As a piece your correspondent penned for the Feb. 18 print edition of Defense News will explain, the Senate’s most-vocal trio on foreign policy and national defense issues is back. Look for that article online Monday evening (or Tuesday morning when you return from the long federal holiday).

As the piece lays out, as the 113th Congress took shape, several developments thrust GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire closer to Senate Republican leaders. And they pounced, leading the first-ever filibuster of a defense secretary nominee.

McCain is the group’s leader and elder statesman. Graham is its articulate and charismatic political attack dog. And the group’s newest member, Ayotte, is emerging as its lawyerly case-builder and cross-examination ace.

On Thursday, the trio vowed to continue their fight for details over the Obama administration’s handling of the deadly Sept. 11 attack on American facilities in Libya. They hinted at a repeat of their Hagel tactics as the Senate moves toward a confirmation vote on Obama’s pick to be CIA director, John Brennan.

Your correspondent asked McCain during a Thursday press conference whether a Brennan filibuster is ahead. “We’re going to get the information,” a confident McCain said. “But to say we’re going to filibuster… We hope [the White House] will be forthcoming.”

Two Faces of Reid. Twice on Thursday, an angry Reid slammed Republicans on the Senate floor. He accused them of being more concerned about battling tea party candidates in their next primary elections than ensuring a non-lameduck secretary of defense was at work in the Pentagon amid a war and coming budget cuts.

“This isn’t high school, getting ready for a football game or some play that’s being produced at high school,” Reid said Thursday morning. “We’re trying to confirm somebody to run the defenses of our country, the military of our country.”

A couple of hours later, Reid struck a deal with Republicans that would allow them to vote down a measure to end their filibuster of the Hagel nomination. In return, Reid secured a soft promise that GOP senators would stand aside following the recess week. Reid is betting his political foes will make good on that vow. It could be a big bet, given their Larry Brown-like strategy.

Cruz Control? During a two-hour Tuesday Senate Armed Services Committee meeting that eventually led to party-line approval of Hagel’s nomination, freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, again riled members of both parties.

The blunt, aggressive and unapologetically conservative senator made headlines after Hagel’s Jan. 31 confirmation hearing by roughing up the nominee with tactics rarely seen in the stuffy Senate.

Cruz was it again on Tuesday, going so far as to allege — admittedly without evidence — that Hagel might have taken money directly from rogue states like North Korea. He also suggested Hagel tight with the anti-U.S. and anti-Israel regime in Iran.

That caused a moment of bipartisanship that is rare lately for the panel. Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and McCain both to crack back hard on Cruz for “impugning” Hagel’s patriotism.

By Thursday, Cruz flatly refused to utter even one word when approached by reporters. He twice waved off this correspondent. There were whispers that the freshman tea party darling had contracted a cold since Tuesday. How convenient, no? It was that kind of week.

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett