US President George Bush faces a politically thorny situation – and stark choices – now that Senate Democrats twice have blocked John Bolton’s confirmation as UN ambassador.
The president could withdraw the nomination, authorise further concessions to Democrats over access to information they seek or bypass politicians altogether by appointing the former State Department official to the job temporarily without the Senate’s approval.
But any of those options could leave the president appearing weak as he confronts sagging poll numbers and fights to stave off a lame-duck label just six months into his final term.
At a White House news conference yesterday, the president left open the possibility of circumventing the Senate when he side-stepped a question on whether he would appoint Bolton to the ambassador’s post when Congress leaves Washington for a July 4 recess.
“It’s time for the Senate to give him an up-or-down vote. Now,” the president said.
But Democrats made clear they weren’t budging and most stood together to defeat an effort to force a final vote on Bolton. The Senate voted 54-38, six shy of the total needed to advance his nomination. The vote represented an erosion in support from last month’s failed Republican effort.
Senator George Voinovich, who voted in May to advance the nomination, switched positions and urged Bush to consider another candidate, while only three Democrats crossed party lines.
Democrats have demanded the administration check a list of 36 US officials against names in secret national security intercepts that Bolton requested and received.
They also want documents related to the preparation of testimony that Bolton planned to deliver – but ultimately never gave – in the House in July 2003 about Syria’s weapons capability.
In remarks on the Senate floor, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, the lead Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a chief critic of Bolton, said White House Chief Staff Andrew Card had offered to provide some of the Syria information.
“I indicated to him that was not sufficient,” Biden said. Rather, Biden said Democrats want the administration to turn over all information they seek.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Republican, accused Democrats of being unwilling to compromise.
“Some on the other side of the aisle are obstructing a highly qualified nominee and I believe by not allowing him to assume this position yet are doing harm to our country,” Frist said.
Bush has said Bolton, with a history of blunt talk and scepticism about the UN’s power, would lead an effort to overhaul the world body’s bureaucracy and make it more accountable.
Critics say Bolton, who has been accused of mistreating subordinates, would hurt US efforts to work with the UN and other countries.
Republicans argued that holding yesterday’s vote – even if it didn’t succeed - would at least put Democrats on record again of delaying final confirmation.
That could provide political cover for the White House for a recess appointment or to withdraw Bolton’s nomination by letting the administration say it was forced to take those steps because of Democratic stonewalling.
Some Republicans urged Bush to continue fighting for Bolton rather than appoint him on his own during the forthcoming Senate break – a so-called recess appointment – for fear of sending a weakened nominee to the United Nations.
“That would not be in our best interest,” said Senator Pat Roberts, a Republican and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Such an appointment would only last through the next one-year session of Congress – in Bolton’s case until January 2007.
Like the vote in May, Senators Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana were the only Democrats to support the move to have an immediate final vote. Last month, Republicans fell four votes short of moving the nomination forward.
Democrats say they want to determine whether Bolton improperly used intelligence to intimidate officials who disagreed with his views. They also suspect the Syria documents could bolster their case that Bolton sought to exaggerate intelligence data.
They want to see whether he misled the Senate during his confirmation hearings when he said he was not involved in the preparation of the Syria testimony.