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Cloture for Hagel and What It Means for Israel Policy

The filibuster is over, with 14 additional Republicans joining the entire Democratic caucus in a vote for cloture on Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense. Roll Call gives the list of new Republican defections (in addition to earlier cloture yeas Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, Thad Cochran, and Mike Johanns):

[Utah’s Orrin] Hatch, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee, Jeff Flake and John McCain of Arizona, Roy Blunt of Missouri, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Richard C. Shelby and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, John Thune of South Dakota and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

Note that they’re mostly the GOP’s old-guard moderates, or at least moderates by the standards of 2013. (There was a time when Orrin Hatch and John McCain were considered right-wingers.) The presence of McCain, Graham, and Ayotte, three of Hagel’s harshest critics, may seem surprising, but really isn’t: McCain cares enough about Senate tradition (and maybe even his erstwhile friendship with fellow combat veteran Hagel) that he wasn’t going to torpedo a nominee with a filibuster, and where he leads Graham and Ayotte follow. Coburn, for his part, is an actual maverick: conservative but not a checklist ideologue. Most of these Republicans will vote against Hagel’s confirmation per se, but that will pass on a simple majority. Cloture was a higher hurdle.

Just as the roster of those voting for cloture is interesting, it’s notable that all of the Republican Senate caucus’s young ideologues, including Rand Paul*, favored maintaining the filibuster. What does this tell us?

It tells me either that the new guard are green and may yet grow up to be Senate “lions”—just as Hatch and McCain were once considered quite right and are now the Republican caucus’s center or even left—or else that the GOP really has lost its sobriety and now places strict ideology above even minimal collegiality and protocol. Keep in mind that John Kerry faced no such obstacles on his way to being confirmed as secretary of state: the Republican Senate junior team is taking its stand here against a fellow Republican who happens to have said some critical things about the Israel Lobby.

Even after losing the cloture vote, and with Hagel all but confirmed at this point, the Sheldon Adelson wing of the GOP might think it’s time to pop the champagne: its power over the party’s foreign-policy direction looks assured, the Tea Party caucus has been fully integrated into the war party (and went to greater lengths than McCain to attest to its fealty—though McCain, of course, had nothing to prove), and any Republican who dares voice realist qualms about Mideast policy has been put on notice. There won’t be any more Hagels in the future.

On the other hand, this intra-party triumph comes at an extra-party cost. No Democrats defected on cloture, and none are expected to do so on the final confirmation vote. AIPAC itself did not take up the fight against Hagel; this was specifically the fight of the right wing of the Israel Lobby. Until now, the core lobby has mostly faced trouble on its left, from groups like J Street and people like Peter Beinart. Now it has a right-wing problem as well, from “ultras” who don’t accept that core lobby’s line that Israel policy should be bipartisan and who have tightly entwined themselves with GOP. What Adelson and Kristol and their friends in the Senate have done is to make Israel a more partisan issue than it has been hitherto—and what’s worse, the party the ultras have aligned with is the one that looks set to be out of power for some time to come.

This is great news for the J Street side of things, as it means that they might be able to take advantage of this partisan polarization and the erosion of the lobby’s center ground to move Israel policy within the majority party in the direction of peace. Hagel and a number of other alienated ex-Republicans may be inclined to help with that.

*Senator Paul’s vote is disappointing but not surprising: having voted against cloture once, who was he going to please by voting for it the second time? He wouldn’t have won back much ground with realists, and he would have given Rubio something to use against him in the struggle to be the Tea Party candidate in 2016.

[Updated to include James K.’s reminder of the first four Republicans for cloture.]

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is editor at large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, Modern Age, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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