WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked the nomination of former GOP Sen. 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 Benghazi, Libya.
Mr. Obama accused Republicans of playing politics with national security during wartime, and Democrats 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 Mr. 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.
Mr. Obama reacted immediately, hammering Republicans for an unprecedented filibuster of a defense secretary nominee and insisting that Mr. Hagel -- a two-term former Nebraska senator and twice-wounded Vietnam combat veteran -- will eventually win confirmation. He would succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is stepping down after four years as CIA director and Pentagon chief.
"It's just unfortunate that this kind of politics intrudes at a time when I'm still presiding over a war in Afghanistan, and I need a secretary of defense who is coordinating with our allies to make sure that our troops are getting the kind of strategy and mission that they deserve," the president said in an online chat sponsored by Google.
In the final minutes of the tally, 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. The Democratic leader set another vote for Feb. 26.
"Just when you thought things couldn't get worse, it gets worse," he lamented of the chamber's bitter partisanship.
The successful GOP effort to block a vote on Mr. Hagel leaves one of the most contentious nominations of the Obama presidency in limbo, although Republicans signaled that they would relent and allow a simple majority vote on Mr. Hagel when they return from their recess.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., voted against ending debate, but said he expects to change his vote, and believes many of his GOP colleagues will.
Echoing other Republicans' complaint, Mr. Alexander called Thursday's vote "unfortunate" and "unnecessary," because Mr. Hagel's nomination came to the Senate floor just two days after its approval by a bitterly divided Armed Services Committee.
Mr. Hagel's nomination has been unusual, facing well-funded opposition unleashed in a barrage of criticism in campaign-style TV and print ads. Republicans have challenged his past statements and votes on Israel, Iran, Iraq and nuclear arms.
At least one group insisted shortly after the vote that it would redouble its efforts to defeat Mr. Obama's choice. "The Emergency Committee for Israel will continue to work to convince a majority of senators of the undeniable truth that we can do much, much better than Mr. Hagel," the group's chairman, William Kristol, said in a statement.
Pennsylvania's Republican Sen. Pat Toomey said of his vote against ending debate: "I've sought explanations regarding [Hagel's] opposition to Iran sanctions and his statements regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. ... His earlier positions on Iran were inconsistent with administration policy, and I am troubled by what appears to be a nomination conversion on this and other issues."
The Hagel vote, combined with a delay for CIA Director-designate John Brennan's nomination, puts Republicans in a tough position, as Democrats are certain to cast them as filibustering two critical members of the Obama second-term national security team.
"Today's vote to filibuster Chuck Hagel's nomination by Republicans is a disgrace, and the GOP is now holding America's security and its troops hostage," said Jon Soltz, an Iraq war veteran and chairman of VoteVets.org.nation
Staff writer Tracie Mauriello contributed.