Republicans succeeded Thursday in blocking a vote on Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s defense secretary nominee, by launching the first filibuster in history against a president’s choice to fill the Pentagon’s top civilian post.
GOP senators said they are delaying the confirmation in order to have more time to study Mr. Hagel’s record and to obtain more information on the White House’s handling of the September attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, a matter on which they accuse the administration of stonewalling or providing wrong information. Republicans expect they will green-light him later this month after the chamber returns from a weeklong vacation.
Still, the filibuster is a stark move against a man who just four years ago was a Republican senator from Nebraska — meaning the senators are blocking one of their former colleagues.
The vote drew a furious response from the White House, which said Republicans were “playing politics” with the Defense Department and with Mr. Hagel, who was wounded serving as an enlisted combat soldier in Vietnam.
“Allow this war hero an up-or-down vote, and let our troops have the secretary of defense they deserve,” press secretary Jay Carney said after the vote.
Some Republicans said they were withholding support to try to pry loose information from the White House, while others said they want more responses from Mr. Hagel. They also questioned why Democrats were moving so quickly on a nominee approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee on a party-line vote two days earlier.
“The debate time for Sen. Hagel is not yet over,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, who was one of those taking the lead in demanding information from the White House on Benghazi — in particular, details about Mr. Obama’s actions during the seven-hour siege on the consulate, during which U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
In a letter sent Thursday, White House Counsel Kathryn H. Ruemmler signaled that Mr. Obama didn’t make any phone calls the night of the attack — though she said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on behalf of Mr. Obama, called the Libyan president.
Mr. Graham said that if Mr. Obama had picked up the phone, at least two of the four Americans killed might still be alive because he might have been able to push U.S. aid to get to the scene faster.
“During the entire attack, the president of the United States never picked up the phone to put the weight of his office in the mix,” he said.
In the Hagel vote, four Republicans joined Democrats in trying to break the filibuster. But the effort fell one vote shy.
“Just when we thought things couldn’t get worse, it gets worse,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
He said the Senate now faces new heights of obstruction.
On Thursday morning, Mr. Reid warned that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta would leave the post at noon, meaning the country would be without a defense secretary.
“In less than two hours, our country will be without a secretary of defense at a time when we have a war going on in Afghanistan. There are about 70,000 troops there. We have a nuclear weapon that was detonated in North Korea a few days ago,” Mr. Reid said.
But the White House undercut that. A spokesman told reporters traveling with the president aboard Air Force One that Mr. Panetta would remain in office until a successor is confirmed. Still, the spokesman said Mr. Obama would like to have Mr. Hagel in office in time to attend a meeting of NATO defense ministers next week.
Mr. Hagel, 66, earned two Purple Hearts during his service in Vietnam. He also served two terms as senator, during which he was often a thorn in his own party’s side.
When Mr. Obama nominated Mr. Hagel, the president said he would be an independent voice at the Pentagon.
Defense secretaries are usually confirmed without trouble — and often by voice vote.
The one notable exception was John Tower, another former senator rejected by his colleagues in 1989. But rather than being filibustered by a minority, Mr. Tower was defeated outright on a 53-47 vote.
In Mr. Hagel’s case, some of his past statements and votes with respect to Israel and Iran have troubled Republicans.
Still, other Republicans said they are using Mr. Hagel’s nomination to try to pry more information from the White House on the events surrounding Benghazi. Mr. Graham and others say the administration has yet to answer a number of questions about the attack, the U.S. response and its aftermath.
Republicans said Democrats could have postponed the vote but pushed ahead in order to create a political issue.
“It’s an unfortunate vote, and it’s unfortunate to characterize this as a filibuster. This is a vote by Republicans to say we want more than two days,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican.
Mr. Alexander talked about his own experience when he was nominated to be secretary of education, another Cabinet position, and a single senator blocked him for weeks.
But denying that the vote amounted to a filibuster drew an angry response from Mr. Reid.
“If this is not filibuster, I’d like to see what a filibuster was,” he said. “This is going to the absurd.”