Bolton in limbo

President Bush may have to exercise a nuclear option of his own to get his controversial nominee into the United Nations.

Topics: United Nations,

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., failed late Monday to end a Democratic filibuster on the nomination of John R. Bolton to be the ambassador to the United Nations. Forcing a cloture vote, Frist fell six votes short of the 60-vote supermajority needed to cut off debate.

But while Democrats insist they will continue to oppose Bolton’s nomination, the White House itself could move to railroad him through, with President Bush going around the Senate and placing Bolton temporarily in the position through a recess appointment. Though the option is rarely utilized, a president has the constitutional power to make appointments when the Senate is in recess. As the next Senate recess approaches with the Fourth of July holiday, President Bush could appoint Bolton — who would then hold the position through January 2007.

When asked on Sunday whether the president would exercise that power, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Fox News, “We’ll see what happens this week.” But on Monday, President Bush sidestepped the question. “It’s time for the Senate to give him an up-or-down vote, now,” he told reporters.

The mood was contentious on the Senate floor late Monday as the roll call neared. In a prelude to 2008, two of the more likely candidates for the presidency from each party sounded off, Sen. George Allen, R-Va., and Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del.

“Unfortunately, some on the other side keep moving the goal post,” Allen argued. “Every time this gets ready for a vote, there’s always a new allegation … something else to delay a vote on this nomination.”

In fact, a single issue has been at the center of the standoff since the vote was last delayed on May 26: Democrats say they want to determine if Bolton, while working as the State Department’s arms control chief, wrongly used covert national security intercepts to force officials to follow his hawkish policies.

Bolton admitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he leveraged his position to obtain the intercepts, but he denies any wrongdoing. According to unnamed U.S. officials who testified before the Senate, however, Bolton’s repeated requests for information about other officials’ private conversations caused considerable speculation that he was using his high-level position to spy on those who disagreed with his policy directives. Seeking to substantiate that allegation, Democrats have called repeatedly on the White House to release a list of 36 names, in order to check it against intelligence records.

Prior to Monday’s vote, Biden said that he believed the requested documents will “bolster” Democrats’ “case that [Bolton] repeatedly sought to exaggerate intelligence.” Democrats also want preparation material of testimony Bolton was to give in the House in July 2003 on Syria’s weapons capacity.

Sticking to the topic of United Nations reform, Allen emphasized the Republican argument that Bolton is a tough man for a tough job. “[Americans] don’t want a lap dog; they want a watchdog,” he insisted.

The inability to end the filibuster will be viewed by some as another setback for Frist, who came up short during last month’s showdown over the judiciary, and who is also considering a run for the White House in 2008. Following the cloture vote, the majority leader sounded a note of frustration, aiming to put the Democrats’ obstruction in a bad light. He said in a statement: “Despite hours and hours of relentless hearings, questioning, deliberation and debate, the minority has still resorted to parliamentary maneuvers to thwart the president’s choice for U.N. ambassador — a post that has remained vacant now for over five months.”

Republicans for the most part argue that the battle against Bolton is nothing more than partisan politics, that Democrats intend to look for any excuse to hold up the conservative nomination from a conservative president. But Democrats insist they will continue to filibuster Bolton’s nomination, predicated on the numerous allegations against him, until their disclosure demands are met.

“Never before has any president of either party made such a divisive and controversial nomination,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., argued just minutes before Monday’s vote. Rhetorically, she asked, “In light of all the controversy [President Bush] sticks with this nominee?”

The answer may well lie with President Bush hoping to fend off some serious lame-duck status. With his approval numbers hovering near a dismal 40 percent, unable to push ahead on his signature issue of Social Security reform, delayed on his intentions to overhaul the tax code, and facing consistent instability in Iraq, Bush likely doesn’t want to concede that his administration is unable to win even in this smaller-scale battle.

But with Democrats continuing to hold their ground on the Bolton nomination, the president may have to use what’s left in the arsenal of executive power — sidestepping the Congress altogether — in order to claim victory.

David Paul Kuhn is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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