White House urges GOP to yield, let Hagel go to NATO meeting

The White House urged Senate Republicans to yield on their opposition to Chuck Hagel on Thursday so that the U.S. can send its new defense secretary to discuss the future of Afghanistan at next week’s NATO meeting in Brussels.

“We need our new defense secretary to be there,” said White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest, aboard Air Force One. “It does not send a favorable signal for Republicans in the United States Senate to delay a vote on the President's nominee -- a nominee who is a member of their own party -- to be the secretary of defense.  It's difficult to explain to our allies exactly why that’s happening.”

Republicans have maintained they will stall Hagel’s nomination by denying Democrats the 60 votes needed to end debate and move to a final vote on Friday.  Hagel officials concede they are two votes short of 60, as of midday Thursday.

“The president stands strongly behind Senator Hagel,” Earnest said. An official working on Hagel’s nomination said the White House would not have Hagel withdraw, no matter the outcome of the filibuster, namely because Hagel has more than enough votes for the simple majority needed for confirmation.

“So we urge Republicans in the Senate to drop their delay.  Here's why this delay is critically important:  There is a clear majority in the United States Senate for Senator Hagel's confirmation.  These delaying tactics are unconscionable and they should end right away.”

Officials close to Hagel are arguing for a final vote to occur on Friday in order to let Hagel begin work on the Afghanistan drawdown NATO allies want to learn more about next week. The Senate is scheduled to leave for President’s Day recess next week but Majority Leader Harry Reid (R-NV) has said he would keep senators in Washington until a final vote occurs.

“We need our new Secretary of Defense in place to be a part of that process,” said Earnest, in addition to the looming sequester, which takes effect on March 1.

If Hagel falters, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to leave his California home to attend the NATO meeting.

Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg via Getty Images