Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee split evenly Wednesday on whether to advance Colin Kahl, the nominee for the Pentagon’s top policy job, leaving him a rocky path for confirmation in the wider Senate.
The panel split in a 13-13 vote that broke entirely along party lines, according to a Senate Republican aide. A party-line tie was considered the best outcome for Kahl, as GOP resistance to his nomination solidified over his past partisan tweets and differences over Middle East policy.
Kahl can still be confirmed if Democrats in the full Senate remain united, though the road ahead is arduous. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer can move to discharge his nomination, another procedural hurdle that will add time and votes before he is confirmed and may require Vice President Kamala Harris to cast several tie-breaking votes in the evenly divided Senate.
His confirmation to be undersecretary of defense for policy could be among the most difficult the Senate undertakes. Senate Democratic leaders had to discharge President Joe Biden’s Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra this month after a tie committee vote. But Becerra was ultimately confirmed with the support of one Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, averting the need to lean on Harris to break a tie.
At a briefing Wednesday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the administration “absolutely” supports Kahl and isn’t contemplating withdrawing his nomination.
“Colin is qualified, he’s experienced and he would bring an incredible reservoir of perspective to the job at the Department of Defense,” Psaki told reporters. “So we look forward to his confirmation.”
Kahl, a former Pentagon Middle East policy official and national security adviser to then-Vice President Biden, has been easily the most contentious of the three of Biden Pentagon nominees Armed Services has considered so far.
A planned committee vote on Kahl had been delayed for nearly two weeks as centrist Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, seen as the swing vote in committee and likely on the floor, remained publicly undecided. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin intervened on Kahl’s behalf, urging Manchin to support him.
At a confirmation hearing in early March, Kahl came under fire from Republican senators for his past tweets criticizing GOP lawmakers and former President Donald Trump’s national security policies.
A similar controversy over harsh tweets ultimately helped tank the nomination of Biden’s pick to lead the White House budget office, Neera Tanden.
Republicans have also parted ways with Kahl on some policy areas, including his vocal advocacy for the 2015 agreement to rein in Iran’s nuclear program.
GOP senators have lined up in opposition to Kahl in the weeks since his confirmation hearing. All 13 Senate Armed Services Republicans, led by ranking member Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, signed onto a rare joint statement Wednesday afternoon affirming their opposition.
“We’ve each had a chance to hear from him — whether one on one, at his nomination hearing or both – and we all agree that he has neither the disposition nor judgment to serve in this critical position at this critical time,” the statement said. “This is not a position we take lightly, but we urge our colleagues to reject this nomination when it comes to the floor.”
Democrats have largely backed him and extolled his qualifications for the top policy job. Allies in the national security and foreign policy world also came to his defense last week, arguing in a letter to Inhofe and Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) that Kahl has been the target of a “smear campaign” and that his nomination is being used to relitigate the Iran deal.
Still, Democrats must hold the line with a narrow road to his confirmation. Some Democratic senators, such as moderate Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, could still defect on a final vote. Other senators to watch include Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who opposed the Iran nuclear agreement.
But Republican support for Kahl is increasingly less likely. Collins, who has broken with her party to support some of Biden’s nominees, announced last week she won’t support Kahl on the Senate floor.
Under the rules governing the 50-50 Senate, Schumer can next make a motion to discharge Kahl’s nomination with debate limited to four hours divided equally between the two parties. If the nomination is successfully discharged to the full Senate, then it is placed on the chamber’s executive calendar and can be called up for vote.
Reed said the timing of a vote is up to leadership, which is teeing up votes on senior nominees across the federal government now that all of Biden’s top Cabinet picks have been confirmed.
“It’s going to be a function of … what Sen. Schumer’s plans are,” Reed told reporters after the committee vote.
But the delay in a committee vote for Kahl means that the Pentagon won’t have a permanent policy chief until mid-April at the earliest. The Senate leaves the nation’s capital after this week for a two-week recess.