(Photo: H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY)
WASHINGTON - Republicans delayed Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel's confirmation Thursday for at least one week, citing concerns that senators have not had enough time to review his nomination.
Leading GOP senators pledged to allow a vote when the chamber returns after the Presidents Day recess, suggesting the nomination is on pause but not in peril.
On a 58-40 vote, Republicans blocked Democrats from achieving the 60-vote threshold required to end debate and move to a final vote on the nomination. For the final confirmation vote, a simple 51-vote majority will be enough.
"I will vote in favor of cloture on the day we get back," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who defended senators' right to have more time to review a nomination that has sharply divided the two parties. McCain has said he doesn't support Hagel's nomination, but he will not block it from a final vote.
Four GOP senators voted with Democrats, while one, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, voted present.
"There is nothing going to change in the next 10 days about the qualifications of Chuck Hagel," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said after the vote. The Senate is scheduled to vote again Feb. 26, when Democrats are likely to prevail.
Reid said he was going to call Hagel with the message: "We're not going to give up on you."
Republicans have raised repeated questions about Hagel's record, management skills and even his temperament for the job. They said they are not seeking to derail the nomination, just postpone it.
"It's the Senate's prerogative. It's not a filibuster," Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said of the delay.
Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said, "Has this ever happened in history? Not to a nominee of the Defense Department, no."
President Obama said at a Google hangout that he believes Hagel will be confirmed, but the "Republican minority" seems to think there should be "60 votes for everything" that comes before the Senate.
"The filibuster has historically been used selectively," Obama said. "We don't have a 60-vote rule."
"It's just unfortunate this kind of politics" is being played while U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, Obama said.
Reid and other Democrats have accused Republicans of playing politics in an effort to embarrass the administration and cause unnecessary delays in a nomination that appears on track for confirmation despite Thursday's vote.
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official wasn't authorized to speak about the nomination publicly, said, "I think we all need to take a deep breath. Senator Hagel is going to be confirmed; if not tomorrow, then when the Senate returns from recess."
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., was one lawmaker who voted no Thursday. "Senators have questions. We have a right to have answers," he said.
GOP senators have offered a variety of concerns and requests for more information. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he wanted to learn more about reports on comments Hagel allegedly made about Israel's influence over the State Department.
Hagel served two terms as a Republican senator from Nebraska from 1997 to 2009 and helped lead McCain's 2000 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
"We voted for Sen. Kerry on the same day because we were comfortable. We are not all comfortable here. This is a controversial nominee and a party-line vote. There is a desire to not end debate now," Graham said, referring to the quick confirmation process for Secretary of State John Kerry, a Democratic former senator from Massachusetts.