Bush faces hard choices over Bolton
The president could push for a recess appointment if he can't boost Senate support.
WASHINGTON — A second failed Senate vote to move the nomination of John Bolton as US ambassador to the United Nations this week leaves President Bush with three options, all costly.
One is to go for another vote. Republicans need 60 votes to end debate on the embattled nominee; by a leadership count, they are short three. Another option is for the president to make a controversial recess appointment, which could come as early as the July 4 break. A third - and the least likely - is to send Congress another nominee.
At the heart of that decision is a calculation that plays in all nomination battles: Is the dispute about the nominee or is it actually a proxy for a fight with the president over policy?
Democrats say all it will take to get to a final vote is for the White House to release some documents that show whether Mr. Bolton exaggerated intelligence on Syria's weapons program or used intelligence intercepts to bully State Department workers.
Republicans say the fight isn't about this nominee, but rather a partisan attack on the president's foreign policy agenda. They charge that Democrats are moving the goal posts on this nominee, and that no amount of document disclosure will put an end to it.
"A long fight distracts President Bush from what's left of his agenda. Everyone is playing the procedural cards to maximum effect," says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution here.
No one expected a nominee as controversial as John Bolton to breeze through a highly polarized US Senate. Quotes are grist for nomination fights on Capitol Hill, and Bolton provided plenty, notably his observation that it wouldn't make "a bit of difference" if the UN headquarters lost 10 floors.
For some Republicans, such tough talk was an asset. The rationale: Americans want reform at the UN and an ambassador tough enough to drive it. "The people of America don't want a lap dog,, they want a watchdog," said Sen. George Allen (R) of Virginia, after the vote.
But key GOP defector George Voinovich (R) of Ohio contends that such tough talk and, especially, Bolton's allegedly harsh treatment of subordinates signaled that the White House had the wrong man for the job. Senator Voinovich's resistance to Bolton forced Republicans to take the nominee to the floor without a Foreign Relations Committee recommendation.
"The Bolton nomination is particularly reflective of the Washington culture at the moment," says Marshall Wittmann, a former conservative strategist now at the Democratic Leadership Council. "The administration knew they were taking a provocative action when they nominated Bolton, and they got what they expected - a fight. And now we're at an impasse."
On the eve of Monday's vote, the White House offered to compromise with Democrats by releasing the Syria-related documents. Sen. Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, declined the offer, holding to his demand for all requested documents.
Access to 10 National Security Agency intercepts is critical to testing whether Bolton's interest in the names of Americans cited in these intercepts was "intellectual curiosity" and "context," as he testified, or - as several witnesses testified privately to Democratic staff - an effort to beat up on bureaucratic rivals.
In a series of letters to the State Department in the runup to the Bolton vote, Senator Biden protested what he called the Department's "deciding for itself which issues are relevant to the Committee's consideration of the nomination."
Democrats say what's at stake goes beyond Bolton to the powers of Congress. It's not up to the White House to say what documents are needed by Congress to evaluate a nominee. "What does it say when an undersecretary of State and his staff can get access to documents that a senior senator cannot?" said Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut.
Since the beginning of the Bolton fight, Democrats have warned that a battered nominee will arrive at the UN lacking credibility. Analysts say that may not be the case.
"If he were to be confirmed, he would be our UN ambassador. The position itself confers some authority," says Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. He sees the Bolton nomination as still "a winnable fight," for the president One option would be for the president to appoint Bolton as a recess appointment, an option the White House has not ruled out.