WASHINGTON ― The Senate Armed Services Committee voted 13-13 on President Joe Biden’s nominee for Pentagon policy chief, Colin Kahl, in a partisan, closed-door vote Wednesday that signaled Democratic leaders will have to mount a series of votes for him to be confirmed.
Every Republican on the evenly divided panel voted against Kahl, a strong sign that he can’t lose any Democratic votes in the evenly split Senate. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a holdout swing vote, said he voted “yes” with fellow Democrats in favor of Kahl, a former national security adviser to then-Vice President Biden.
Because the SASC split evenly, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., will have to hold a Senate vote to discharge Kahl’s nomination to the floor. If Republicans obstruct, the nomination could face as many as three more floor votes, potentially with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker.
Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., said the nomination was awaiting action from Schumer and that the timing of future votes would depend on Schumer’s plans and available floor time. Reed expressed confidence to reporters at the Capitol that the Democrat-led Senate will confirm Kahl, albeit narrowly.
“Well, with an even vote in the committee, that could foretell an even vote on the floor, requiring the vice president to break the tie,” he said.
The undersecretary of defense for policy is the No. 3 civilian job at the Department of Defense, overseeing strategy, nuclear deterrence, missile defense, international cooperation, and plans and policies. The Senate’s upcoming recess and partisan divisions suggest it will remain one of many high-level vacancies at the DoD for some days yet.
Kahl faced pointed questions from Republicans over his Middle East policy positions and history of tweets attacking Republican lawmakers. Democrats and allies said the nomination has become a partisan proxy fight over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and Biden’s plan to rejoin it.
Committee Republicans released a statement after the vote that quoted all 13 Republicans. They questioned Kahl’s judgment, demeanor, ability to be nonpartisan and qualifications to be tough on China.
“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‚” said the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla. “This is not a position we take lightly, but we urge our colleagues to reject this nomination when it comes to the floor.”
Manchin told reporters after the vote that he had decided that morning after days spent conferring with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, former Defense Secretary Bob Gates and Kahl himself. Manchin opposed Biden’s nominee for White House budget director, Neera Tanden, over her tweets, which proved fatal to the nomination.
But Manchin said Tanden’s tweets were more pointed and personal than Kahl’s, and that Manchin was able to express directly to Kahl his differences on the Iran nuclear deal. He also urged Kahl to reach out to Republicans.
The vote capped several turbulent days for the nomination. Last week, pro-Israel advocates and Kahl’s allies traded messaging over whether Kahl was committed enough to the U.S.-Israel relationship and hawkish enough on Iran. Then on Tuesday, two SASC Democrats ― Sens. Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Maizie Hirono ― announced and backed off their blanket opposition to Biden picks after the White House promised to add a senior-level Asian American Pacific Islander liaison.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.