A Body in Motion

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) might not be masters of Isaac Newton and his three Laws of Motion.

But Reid and Levin certainly apply Newtonian physics when it comes to the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) to become President Obama’s Secretary of Defense.

A lot of Republicans and some Democrats oppose Hagel. They’ve railed on his remarks about Israel, Iran, gays and piled on more criticism after one of the most-lackluster performances of a presidential nominee during a confirmation hearing.

But Hagel appears to have the votes to be confirmed by the Senate – and even the votes to vault a potential filibuster. This is where Newtonian physics come in for Reid and Levin – specifically Newton’s First Law. It states that an object at rest remains at rest unless acted upon. And objects in motion tend to stay in motion.

A few weeks ago, the kinetics of Hagel’s nomination weren’t good. It wasn’t exactly stalled. But the Obama Administration certainly didn’t like the direction in which it was headed. That changed after Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who expressed concerns about Hagel, declared their support. Then Sens. Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Mike Johanns (R-NE) got behind Hagel, too.

As Newton asserted, the Hagel’s nomination was now in motion. Therefore, it would tend to stay in motion – spiraling in the direction the Obama Administration had hoped.

Certainly there were efforts to thwart Hagel’s nomination. Or at the very least, slow it down. Such was the case last week when Levin announced there would be no Armed Services Committee vote on Hagel. But they knew parliamentary physics were on their side.

This is why Levin called a for a vote Tuesday to report Hagel’s nomination out of committee and send it to the floor.

“I think they’re jamming the vote,” protested Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a staunch opponent of Hagel.

Graham wants to sideline Hagel until he gets answers about money the nominee earned from foreign policy speeches he gave to certain groups. In addition, Graham wants to know if President Obama reached out directly to the Libyan government the night the U.S. consulate was attacked in Benghazi.

“I’m not inclined to filibuster. I’m not inclined to filibuster anyone forever,” Graham added.

But Graham is willing to filibuster – at least right now – in hopes of taking the Hagel object out of motion.

So the key for Levin was to keep the Hagel nomination in motion. That meant moving it out of committee and advancing it to the Senate floor as soon as possible. He called a Tuesday afternoon meeting to debate and vote on Hagel – with the Senate launching formal consideration of the nomination Wednesday.

“If there is a risk here, it is that the defeat of this nomination would leave the Department of Defense leaderless at a time when we face immense budgetary challenges and our military is engaged in combat operations overseas,” warned Levin.

However, it wasn’t long until the session devolved into partisan feuding as several Republicans tried to curb Hagel’s trajectory.

Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) said the committee needed more time to review Hagel’s speeches. Freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) suggested Hagel hadn’t been forthcoming with senators about receiving “compensation for giving paid speeches (before) extreme or radical groups.”

Critics often deride the Senate as a clubby, cordial institution. Even so, Cruz’s allegation was too much for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL).

“I want to put on the record that Sen. Cruz has gone over the line,” admonished Nelson. “He has basically impugned the patriotism of the nominee.”

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), the top Republican on the panel, then declared Hagel must be tight with Iran because the Tehran government applauded his pick to head the Pentagon.

“You can’t get any cozier than that,” snapped Inhofe.

Inhofe’s remark prompted Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) to warn the Oklahoma Republican to “be careful,” asking “what if some horrible organization said tomorrow you were one of the best guys they knew?”

In an effort to tame the rhubarb, Levin sternly rebuked Cruz.

“We’re not going to accept your suggestion or innuendo,” Levin said. “If you can come up with any evidence, you can supply that to us that he’s not answering these questions honestly.”

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) doesn’t back Hagel’s nomination. But he came to the nominee’s defense as the debate grew testy.

“Sen. Hagel is an honorable man who has served his country. No one on this committee in any context should impugn his character or integrity,” lectured McCain.

The tension was rare for a panel known for its comity and bipartisanship.

“Let me see if I can reel this back,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) when his turn came to speak. “This is not my idea of a good time.”

Levin called a vote on Hagel’s nomination at 5 pm Tuesday. The panel then voted 14-11 along party lines to refer Hagel favorably to the full Senate for a confirmation vote.

And this is where Newtonian physics come into play.

Hagel supporters know some Republicans are itching for a filibuster. That takes the nomination out of motion. But if Hagel advocates surge ahead and file a cloture petition to shut off the filibuster (meaning, they need to score 60 votes to end debate), they can forge ahead, regardless of someone who want to bring the nomination to a screeching halt.

Here’s why:

The Senate starts formal debate on Hagel’s nomination Wednesday. The Senate has only rejected nine cabinet nominations in the history of the republic. There has never been a successful filibuster of a cabinet nominee. But twice, senators forced their colleagues to round up 60 votes to break a filibuster and advance to a final, up or down confirmation vote.

In 1987 conservative Republicans forced a cloture vote to stop debate on the nomination of Bill Verity to become President Reagan’s Commerce Secretary. The Senate voted 85-8 to end the filibuster threat and then confirmed Verity. In 2006, Bill Nelson and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) expressed concerns about offshore drilling and insisted on a cloture vote on the nomination of former Sen. Dirk Kempthorne (R-ID) to become Interior Secretary. The Senate stopped debate on Kempthorne’s nomination by a 85-8 vote and then confirmed the Idaho Republican.

So Republicans are forcing a rare cloture vote on a cabinet nominee. By nature, cloture petitions must lay over for two nights before they “ripen” and can be voted on. So, if Reid preps a cloture petition Wednesday, the Senate can’t vote on it until Friday at the earliest. And even if the Senate does conjure up 60 votes to break the GOP filibuster, Hagel’s opponents are allotted an additional 30 hours of floor time for a “post-cloture filibuster.”

That means Reid and Levin have a decision to make.

Do they want to force the issue and forge an agreement on Friday where Hagel’s antagonists won’t consume all 30 hours and the Senate can advance to regular confirmation vote on Friday? Or if everyone sticks to their guns, does Reid keep the Senate here over the weekend to finish Hagel? How about holding a vote next week – even though the Senate is scheduled to be out of session for President’s Day?

Or, would Reid and Levin be willing to challenge Newton’s First Law of Motion?

That would entail voting for cloture on this week – and holding off on a final confirmation vote until the final week of February.

Two Senate GOP sources say that’s the scenario Hagel foes like the most. Even though supporters of Hagel’s nomination have propelled the Nebraska Republican a little closer to confirmation, an extra week could bring things to a screeching halt. That gives the GOP time to gin up additional opposition to Hagel and maybe even uncover additional information to jeopardize the nomination.

This is the decision Reid and Levin must soon make.

As Newton’s mechanical laws indicate, an object in motion stays in motion – unless another force acts upon it.

Letting the Hagel nomination hang out there for a week or more makes it vulnerable to additional forces to stop it.

Lindsey Graham accused Democrats of “jamming the vote.”

But parliamentary physicists like Reid and Levin would argue they’re just keeping their object in motion.