Harry Reid’s ‘Nuclear’ Agitation Began During Fight Over Chuck Hagel

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at a Thursday press conference with other Democratic leaders after the Senate passed the 'nuclear option'. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at a Thursday press conference with other Democratic leaders after the Senate passed the ‘nuclear option’. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Senate Republicans went to great lengths in February to prevent Chuck Hagel, once one of their own, from becoming defense secretary. The fight was among the nastiest Washington has ever seen over an executive nomination.

But Hagel eventually was confirmed, and relations between Hagel and his former GOP mates seemed to be warming. Some of his chief critics, like Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have even said they think he’s doing a pretty good job so far as defense secretary.

It turns out, however, that some on Capitol Hill were never quite able to put the GOP filibuster of Hagel’s nomination out of their minds. One of this lot was Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, who pointed to the Hagel flap Thursday on the Senate floor while explaining his move to go “nuclear.”

“In January, Republicans promised to work with the majority to process nominations in a timely manner by unanimous consent, except in extraordinary circumstances. Exactly three weeks later, Republicans mounted a first-in-history filibuster of a highly qualified nominee for secretary of defense.

“Despite being a former Republican senator and a decorated war hero, having saved his brother’s life in Vietnam, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s nomination was pending in the Senate for a record 34 days — more than three times the previous average for a secretary of defense. Remember, our country was at war.

“Republicans have blocked executive nominees such as Secretary Hagel not because they object to the qualifications of the nominee but simply because they see to undermine the very government in which they were elected to serve.”

Strong words, for sure. Political theater, for sure.

But it’s clear from Reid’s words and his clear frustration that the Hagel episode was the beginning of his decision to invoke the “nuclear option” on most nominees, a move he just a few years ago opposed.

Senate Republicans warn the rule change will make everything in the increasingly partisan chamber that much harder. Democrats say they were aware of their colleagues’ misgivings about axing the filibuster for nominations when all but three of them voted in favor of the change.

“The Senate has changed,” a stern-faced Reid told reporters Thursday. “The Senate has changed.”

Whether it’s for the better — or for the worse, as difficult as that may be to fathom — remains to be seen. But the roots of whatever that outcome is began when a few Republican senators decided to make an example of their old friend.

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