WASHINGTON — An arm slumped over his chair in the Senate chamber, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander seemed absent from the proceedings, relaxing his wiry frame and chatting away.
Grinning and equally laid-back was the colleague to his right: U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, an ideological ally, a Georgia Republican and another Southern-statesman type.
As they whispered back and forth, a mainstay from the rival party, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., towered over the main podium. He offered an impassioned plea for former Sen. Chuck Hagel, the Vietnam veteran, Nebraska Republican and, most recently, President Obama's controversial nominee for secretary of defense.
The dissonance of a week ago -- Levin pounding his fist for a quick confirmation vote as Alexander, Isakson and others ignored him -- illustrated the gulf between Democrats and Republicans on Obama's choice to lead America's military.
"The world is too dangerous to have this period of uncertainty," Levin said. "There is no need for it."
Two days earlier, Hagel's nomination had cleared the Senate Armed Services Committee on a 14-11 party-line vote. Alexander later criticized the quick turnaround, telling reporters he spent 87 days waiting to be confirmed as President George H.W. Bush's education secretary.
It wasn't mentioned that the Senate confirmed John Kerry as secretary of state hours after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee cleared him Jan. 29. But Republicans said Hagel needed extra scrutiny after past remarks on Israel and Iran, along with his criticism of America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Levin pleaded for Republicans to change course, but most paid the senator from Michigan no mind. Smiles, backslaps, chuckles.
"The Senate is not in order," said the man with the gavel. "Please take your conversations outside the chamber."
Alexander, Isakson and others rebuffed the command. Levin continued.
Soon came a motion to cut off debate. If it got 60 votes, the next step would be the actual vote on Hagel's nomination.
Floor leaders built in time for senators to consider the question, so some didn't respond precisely when their names were called.
But Tennessee's senior senator wasted no time, shifting his attention away from Isakson and focusing as a clerk launched into an alphabetical roll call.
"No," came the immediate boom.
The tone was set.
Only 58 votes were cast to cut off debate, keeping Hagel in limbo as Congress entered a weeklong recess.
Fellow Southern Republicans distanced themselves from the politics of the delay even as they helped enable it.
"I'm of the mindset that generally speaking you don't filibuster a presidential appointee unless there's really, really something -- unless there are very unusual circumstances," Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said after voting against cutting off debate. "Hagel comes close to that with many people in our caucus."
The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker indicated that he wasn't in lockstep with Hagel's strongest critics. While Democrats call Hagel a patriot and praise his skepticism, several Republicans have pointed to their former colleague's disavowal of the Iraq war, statements about Israel (he once called Israel supporters "the Jewish lobby") and opposition to unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Meanwhile, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., have asked the administration to provide information on last year's attacks in Benghazi, Libya, in exchange for a quicker Hagel vote. Others have asked Hagel to issue financial disclosures and information about speeches he may have given.
"There's a couple legitimate questions," Corker said. "There's some that candidly are an overreach."
Pressed to specify, the former Chattanooga mayor said he's "not going to make those judgments."
U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, of Georgia, said Republican senators deserved time and respect.
"When we consider cabinet appointees, we're entitled to get certain information in order to make a valid judgment," Chambliss said.
But Corker told reporters "a lot of that information actually has been delivered already."
Still, he added, "we've got some guys that haven't had some questions answered."
In interviews and statements, senators from Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama said they'll support a simple majority vote on confirmation after the recess ends and work resumes Monday. But only Richard Shelby, R-Ala., plans on supporting Hagel's nomination "if no disqualifying issues come to light," a spokesman said.
Most others, including Chambliss, Isakson and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said they haven't made up their minds. Corker said he's "leaning against" supporting Hagel, while Alexander said he's "not the right person to lead the world's largest military organization in these dangerous times."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had planned on retiring by now but recently said he'll stay at the Pentagon as long as necessary.
Chris Carroll covers federal politics for the Times Free Press. A Chattanooga native, he went to Red Bank High School and graduated with honors from East Tennessee State University. Chris investigated violent crime, municipal government and hospitals before taking the political beat. For tornado coverage, he and Pam Sohn won a first-place Tennessee Associated Press Managing Editors deadline reporting award. In 2010, Chris won the Golden Press Card Award of Merit and another deadline reporting ...