Bolting from Bolton

From out of nowhere, Republican Sen. George Voinovich puts Bush's U.N. nominee on the ropes. Will three weeks of delay knock him out?

By Tim Grieve

Published April 20, 2005 12:34PM (EDT)

Where did he come from?

For weeks, the forces fighting the confirmation of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations have kept a close eye on Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee, the member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee widely thought to be the most likely Republican to vote no on Bolton and thereby kill off his nomination in committee.

But lurking behind Door No. 3 -- or somewhere -- was Ohio Republican George Voinovich, who came out of nowhere Tuesday to put the kibosh, at least for now, on his party's plans to get Bolton on the road to confirmation this week. On Monday and again on Tuesday, Senate Democrats, led by Delaware's Joe Biden, had urged Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar to put off Tuesday's scheduled vote on Bolton's nomination. Lugar wouldn't budge, saying that there had been plenty of give-and-take on Bolton, but that "the give is over."

But as the committee prepared to vote, Voinovich -- a bit of a rebel in Republican circles, but one who had said previously that he'd support Bolton's nomination -- piped up to say that, if forced to make a decision about Bolton on the spot, he'd have to vote no. "I've heard enough today that I don't feel comfortable about voting for Mr. Bolton," Voinovich said. "I think one's interpersonal skills and their relationship with their fellow man is a very important ingredient in anyone that works for me. I call it the kitchen test. Do we feel comfortable about the kitchen test?"

It was, as the Chicago Tribune notes this morning, "a rare instance of political debate changing a senator's position."

So stunned by such a thing, Lugar seemed ready to move ahead with a vote anyway -- at least until he did the math and realized that, without Voinovich, the vote on Bolton would be, at best, a tie, meaning that his nomination would die in committee. Lugar quickly changed course, and the committee members agreed unanimously to put the Bolton nomination over until after the Senate's recess. In the meantime, Democrats -- and maybe Republicans like Voinovich, Chafee and the wavering Chuck Hagel -- will get a few weeks to explore further the allegations of abusive behavior that keep surfacing about the man Bush has chosen as his U.N. ambassador. The Tribune wraps up the case nicely: There are allegations that Bolton "tried to manipulate intelligence on biological weapons, sought to fire espionage analysts who disagreed with him and harassed subordinates." And don't forget the bit about chasing a woman through the hallways of a Russian hotel and throwing things at her in retaliation for her criticism of one of his clients.

In the end, there may be more vote-counting than investigating that goes on. With Voinovich out on the point, other less-than-enthusiastic Republicans may feel more free to step away from the president on Bolton. Chafee, for one, seems to be wavering to the point of wobbling. He told the Associated Press: "The president gets to choose his team. Most importantly for me, he's going to be on a short leash with a choke collar." But according to the Tribune, Chafee says he's gone from "inclined to support" to "neutral" on Bolton. One thing he knows for sure: Asked if Republican support for Bolton is eroding, Chafee said: "That's accurate."

The Los Angeles Times, which says that the Bolton nomination "began as an embarrassment and is ending as a mistake," says in an editorial this morning that it's time for Botlon to save Bush from Bush and withdraw his nomination. "The best case that can be made for Bolton is that he's no worse than other neoconservative officials in the Pentagon who manipulated intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction," the Times writes. "But Bolton also appears to have a mean streak, a pattern of arrogant recklessness that bodes ill for this assignment."

That's not how the White House sees it. Scott McClellan said Tuesday that the White House remains 100 percent behind Bolton, calling him "exactly the person we need at the United Nations at this time."

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

MORE FROM Tim Grieve

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

War Room