With this week's delay in a committee vote on his nomination to be ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton is up against an iron law of Washington politics: Confirmation delayed is often confirmation denied.
The postponement also signals that GOP moderates still have some clout on Capitol Hill - and are ready to exercise it.
In a surprise move, the full Senate Judiciary Committee opted to take another three weeks to vet allegations of improper conduct ranging from bullying subordinates and harassing a female contractor to mishandling classified materials.
"The nomination is now is big trouble," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "By the postponement, it gives anybody with anything bad to say about Bolton a chance to come forward."
Ask former US Sen. John Tower, whose 1989 nomination to be Defense secretary in the first Bush administration failed after delays and allegations. "The first postponement of the vote had been bad enough; it triggered a burst of new allegations about my private life," he wrote in his memoir, "Consequences." "If the open-ended investigation-allegation-investigation cycle continued, enough mud would be thrown on my reputation - for whatever reason, be it malice, politics, kookiness, the vindictiveness of an ex-wife - that it would be impossible to scrape it off in a month or a year or a lifetime." And so it proved.
The Tower nomination was the first cabinet appointee of a new president ever voted down. Ever since the first allegations about Mr. Bolton surfaced, the White House and GOP Senate leaders have tried to keep the focus on the shortcomings of the United Nations, not the nominee.
From waste and mismanagement to the oil-for-food scandal and sexual abuse in Africa, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have grievances with the UN. Reform would require passion, intellect, and "very heavy lifting," Republicans said. No one has disputed Bolton's intellect or passion.
"Reform of the United Nations is the major foreign policy goal," said Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "It would be ideal if the reformer was generally applauded for official and unofficial conduct at all points, but obviously that is not the case."
The tipping point came when Sen. George Voinovich (R) of Ohio broke with the chairman to oppose the nominee on Tuesday. He was later joined by Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R) of Rhode Island and Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, as well as Democrats on the panel. While Senator Voinovich had not been present at last week's confirmation hearing, he said he had "heard enough today that I don't feel comfortable about voting for Mr. Bolton."
Voinovich is a "classic moderate Republican, of which there are still a few left in the Senate, and they need him," says Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. "The Bolton nomination is not a done deal."
Mr. Lugar says a final meeting on the nomination will come after the April recess, and he vows to work with Democrats to examine witnesses that might be material to new allegations. But, as the courtly chairman cautioned Tuesday: "...the chair has detected, and I don't mean to be malicious about this, a sense of delay, almost hopeful delay, that something might turn up. And so things are turning up..."