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Senate GOP stalls Hagel nomination by waging filibuster

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee to be defense secretary, on Capitol Hill, Jan. 31, 2013.

Senate Republicans on Thursday stalled further work on confirming former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., as the next secretary of defense, likely prolonging the fight over the Pentagon nominee for at least another week and a half.

The Senate voted 58 to 40 to end debate on Hagel's nomination, falling short of the 60-vote threshold they needed to move toward a final confirmation vote, and subjecting the former Republican senator to an unprecedented, de-facto filibuster. Four Republicans supported Hagel and one GOP senator voted present, though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., switched his vote to "no" in a procedural move to be able to bring up Hagel's nomination at a later date.

Related: Five lessons we've learned from the Hagel fight

The vote is only a temporary setback for the White House, which still views Hagel’s eventual confirmation as a likely proposition. President Barack Obama said in a Google+ hangout shortly after the vote that his "expectation and hope" is that Hagel would eventually be confirmed.

“Senator Hagel is going to be confirmed, if not tomorrow then when the Senate returns from recess,” a White House official said Thursday. (The Senate is away from Washington next week and is scheduled to return for work as soon as Feb. 25.)

The Obama administration’s confidence is rooted in statements Thursday by a number of Republicans who have said they intend to switch their vote after the recess and support moving toward a final vote for Hagel.

NBC's Kelly O'Donnell shares the latest news about Chuck Hagel's confirmation vote.

The delay still incensed Democrats, though, who argued that the delay was without precedent and risked leaving the military essentially leaderless during a time of war and as major cuts to the defense budget loom. (Outgoing Secretary Leon Panetta continues to serve in his role until Hagel is confirmed, though he had intended to finish his service this week.)

"I'm going to go call Chuck Hagel when I finish here and say, 'I'm sorry,'" Reid said after the cloture vote. He set another cloture vote for Tuesday Feb. 26.

Indeed, the White House scrambled for much of the afternoon to find the handful of Republican votes that would have allowed for Hagel’s confirmation this week. They released a letter in response to GOP senators’ questions about the administration’s response to the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on a diplomatic posting in Benghazi, Libya, and Vice President Joe Biden worked the phones in hopes of finding the necessary votes to overcome the de-facto filibuster.

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The 60-vote threshold means that Hagel’s nomination is, in effect, being subjected to a filibuster. Because Republicans are objecting to ending debate – often a formality in the Senate, where lawmakers give their “unanimous consent” to moving forward with a vote – Democrats must deliver the same 60 votes that they would need under the circumstances of a filibuster to end debate on the Hagel nomination.

Republicans argued that they were not orchestrating a formal filibuster against Hagel – a maneuver which would be unprecedented in the instance of a nominee for the secretary of defense position.

Some GOP senators – led by Sens. John McCain, Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, S.C. – said that they just needed a little more time to thoroughly vet Hagel’s background, despite having served with the former Nebraska senator during the bulk of his two terms in the Senate. Graham and McCain argued that they needed more time than the two days that have elapsed since the armed services panel approved Hagel’s nomination for consideration by the whole Senate.

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