WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans on Thursday stalled the nomination of former GOP senator Chuck Hagel as the nation's next defense secretary over unrelated questions about President Barack Obama's actions in the aftermath of the deadly raid on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya. Democrats called the vote "tragic" and vowed to revive the nomination after Congress' weeklong break.
By 58-40, with one abstention, the Senate fell short of the 60-vote threshold required to advance Hagel's nomination to a final, up-or-down vote on his confirmation. Four Republicans voted with Democrats to end the debate and proceed to a final vote: Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine and Mike Johanns of Nebraska.
Obama reacted immediately, accusing Republicans of playing politics with the nation at war.
At the last minute, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., switched his vote from yes to no, a procedural move that allows him to revive the nomination after the break. He set the vote for Feb. 26.
"Just when you thought things couldn't get worse, it gets worse," the Democratic leader lamented of the chamber's bitter partisanship.
The successful Republican effort to block a vote on Hagel leaves one of the most contentious nominations of the Obama presidency in limbo, although the White House expressed confidence that the former Republican senator would eventually win Senate confirmation.
Republicans had been blocking the confirmation of their former colleague and Vietnam veteran until they received information from the White House on when Obama contacted Libyan officials after the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi last September in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
The White House responded to that request earlier Thursday, saying Obama spoke with Libyans a day after the attack.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona led the opposition to Hagel's confirmation, but he said he would not object to the test vote, called cloture.
The White House responded to questions about Benghazi by saying former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf on Obama's behalf on Sept. 11, the day of the attack, to coordinate additional support to protect Americans in Libya. White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said Obama spoke to Magariaf on the evening of Sept. 12.
The Obama administration also had disclosed the calls at the time they were made.
A White House official said Thursday that if there had been a need to push the Libyans to do something, Obama would have called, but the official said the Libyans were trying to do the right thing and were being as helpful as possible. Moreover, the official, discussing internal communications only on the condition of anonymity, said the earlier call with Clinton had gone well.
Reid said it was "shocking" and "tragic" that the GOP would attempt to block Hagel's nomination at a time when the U.S. military is engaged in so many places around the world. "Not a single nominee for secretary of defense ever in the history of our country has been filibustered," he said in a speech on the Senate floor.
A full Senate vote on Hagel, a former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska and twice-wounded Vietnam veteran, had been expected Friday after Reid filed a motion to limit debate. While Democrats hold a 55-45 edge in the Senate and have the numbers to confirm Hagel on a majority vote, they needed the support of five Republicans to clear the way for a majority vote. In the end, they only got four.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., had said Wednesday he would vote against ending debate on Hagel's nomination.
"There seems to not be much interest to hold this president accountable for a national security breakdown that led to the first ambassador being killed in the line of duty in over 30 years," Graham said. "No, the debate on Chuck Hagel is not over. It has not been serious. We don't have the information we need. And I'm going to fight the idea of jamming somebody through until we get answers about what the president did personally when it came to the Benghazi debacle."
The nomination of John Brennan as CIA director is also being delayed; the Senate Intelligence Committee is pushing off a vote amid demands that the White House turn over more details about drone strikes against terror suspects and about the Benghazi attacks. Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein of California said a vote likely will be postponed till late February.
A bitterly divided Armed Services Committee on Tuesday voted to approve Hagel by a 14-11 vote, with all the panel's Democrats backing him. The committee's Republicans were unified in opposition to their onetime colleague, who will succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta if he's confirmed.
Obama "stands strongly" behind Hagel and believes he "will do a wonderful job," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said aboard Air Force One en route to Decatur, Ga., where the president traveled Thursday to speak about early childhood education.
If ultimately confirmed by the Senate, Hagel, 66, would take charge of the U.S. armed forces at a time of turmoil. Automatic cuts to the Pentagon's budget are looming, American troops in Afghanistan are being halved over the next year, North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon, Iran remains a threat in the Persian Gulf region, and Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Mali and Tunisia all are in a state of unrest.
At a Pentagon award ceremony on Thursday for Clinton, Panetta said it was fitting to recognize her accomplishments as secretary of state on Valentine's Day. And he said the second-best Valentine's Day present would be for the Senate to confirm Hagel and allow Panetta and his wife to "get the hell out of town." He said he's got his belongings packed.
Hagel has faced intense opposition from Republicans, who have challenged his past statements and votes on Israel, Iran, Iraq and nuclear weapons.
And they accused Democrats of setting up a test vote Thursday that they knew would fail so the president's allies could paint Republicans as obstructionists during the Presidents Day break.
"We could have worked this out," said Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Donna Cassata and Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.