Senate Foreign Relations Committee Votes On Bolton Nomination
Mark Wilson  /  Getty Images
Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, talks to reporters after making his damning indictment of UN nominee John Bolton.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 5/12/2005 4:59:49 PM ET 2005-05-12T20:59:49

With the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voting along party lines Thursday to send the nomination of U.N. ambassador-designate John Bolton to the Senate floor, two questions hang over the nominee.

  • With the stinging indictment of Bolton by Sen. George Voinovich, R- Ohio Thursday morning, how much damage did Voinovich do to the nominee’s chances of confirmation?
  • What electoral calculation will Democrats make as they ponder whether to launch a filibuster of the nomination when it reaches the Senate floor?

A Democratic filibuster would kill Bolton’s nomination, unless Republicans rounded up 60 votes to overcome it.

Senate Democratic leaders will make their decision on filibustering Bolton after months of Republicans hammering at the charge that the opposition party has been nothing but obstructionist with its filibusters of President Bush’s judicial nominees since 2003.

Many Republican senators believe that filibusters of judicial nominees cost the Democrats the Senate seat of ex-minority leader Tom Daschle last November and perhaps other seats as well, as the Republicans scored a net gain of four seats.

Leading Democrats were careful to not reveal their filibuster strategy in comments to reporters right after Voinovich unleashed his attack on Bolton.

Wary on filibuster
Asked just moments after Voinovich’s speech whether he thought the Democrats should filibuster Bolton, Foreign Relation Committee member Sen. John Kerry, D- Mass., said “I want to see what the final decision of this committee is, given where Sen. Voinovich is, and how we come out of here.”

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., said, "I wouldn't rule out the possibility of a filibuster." Asked whether he wanted a filibuster, Dodd said "not necessarily," adding, "I'll try to get lay of the land out there" before deciding to take that "extraordinary step."

He said Democrats might consider a filibuster in order to thoroughly debate the charges that Bolton sought to have intelligence analysts fired or transferred. "To people who question whether or not a filibuster has value in the Senate, this may be such a case," Dodd said.

Asked whether the message of a filibuster would be that for such a contentious nominee, 60 votes, rather 51 should be required, Dodd said, "I would think so."

Queried on a filibuster, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. said, “I’m hoping it doesn’t reach that point. Based on what Sen. Voinovich said, it is pretty clear to me this person should not even come out of committee. Clearly a majority of the committee does not think he’s an acceptable nominee.”

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The filibuster decision “is a question only they (the Democrats) can answer,” said committee member Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H. “I’ve heard it both ways: I’ve heard some say they will filibuster, others that say, ‘no, that’s not appropriate for a nomination of this type, to just throw up another procedural roadblock and prevent the United States from having a strong representative at the UN.’”

Voinovich’s speech provided the Democrats with a bipartisan patina to present their case for scuttling the nominee.

The Ohio Republican praised Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for recently taking steps to improve America’s image in the eyes of foreigners.

Exasperated Voinovich
But then, with exasperation in his voice, he added, “What message are we sending to the world community if, in the same breath, we have sought to appoint as ambassador to the United Nation who himself has been accused of being arrogant, of not listening to his friends, of acting unilaterally, of bullying those who do not have the ability to properly defend themselves?” Video: Voinovich slams Bolton

Yet despite the drama of Voinovich’s speech to the committee, it remains to be seen whether any other Republicans would join him and vote “no” when Bolton’s nomination reaches the floor.

“I have enough faith in my colleagues” that some of them will vote “no” on Bolton after reviewing the testimony, Voinovich told reporters.

Had most senators already made up their minds even before Voinovich’s speech?

Perhaps they had, or at least that was Sununu’s view. “There’s very little doubt in my mind that he would win an up-or-down vote (on the Senate floor), probably with a little bit of room to spare,” the New Hampshire Republican said.

He said that most of his GOP colleagues had already examined the documents and testimony from the Bolton investigation.

One key GOP centrist, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, said flatly that Bolton had enough votes on the Senate floor to win approval. The most liberal Republican, Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, has already committed himself to vote for Bolton.

Nomination goes to the floor
And despite Voinovich’s harsh words, he did an inestimable service to Bush by agreeing to vote for a motion to send the nomination to the Senate so all 100 senators could vote.

“I am not so arrogant to think that I should impose my judgment … on the rest of my colleagues,” he explained. “We owe it to the president to give Mr. Bolton an up-or-down vote on the floor of the United States Senate.”

A few minutes later, mobbed by reporters as he left the hearing room, Voinovich softened his indictment of Bolton, seemingly undercutting his own case against the nominee.

“If I thought there was irreparable damage that was going to happen” if Bolton did become U.N. ambassador, Voinovich hinted, he might have voted to kill the nomination in the committee.

But instead he would let Bolton move forward.

“If he goes to the U.N., because of this great microscopic review of his record, he may take that into consideration in his behavior there,” mused Voinovich. “He could change. He could be a different person.”

As is often the case in Washington these days, there was an undercurrent of retribution in some of the debate.

Bolton was paying the price for the Bush administration making what, to Democrats and to some Republicans as well, seemed in retrospect a rigged case on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Twenty-year struggle
But in fact the bitter struggle between Senate Democrats and Bolton stretches back 20 years.

In 1986, when he served as Assistant Attorney General in charge of liaison with Congress, he battled Sen. Edward Kennedy, D- Mass. over the nomination of William Rehnquist to be chief justice.

Kennedy wanted the Justice Department to turn over memos Rehnquist had written while serving in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.

Haled before the Judiciary Committee, Bolton rebuffed Kennedy’s demands.

In 1987 Bolton, a former law student of Robert Bork, had the job of trying to persuade senators to vote for Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court. In a landmark defeat for conservatives, the Senate rejected Bork by a vote of 58 to 42.

Even though Bork was seeking a lifetime appointment and Bolton isn’t, the Bolton battle does have echoes of 1987. Bork’s defeat signaled that Ronald Reagan had begun to lose his magic, his ability to marshal public opinion and outwit congressional opposition.

Making the case for Bolton Thursday, committee chairman Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., reminded committee members that Bush won last November and implied that Democrats were trying to deprive him of the fruits of that victory.

Democrats "may not agree with the president's choice, but the results of the 2004 election give the president the responsibility and the right to nominate a like-minded representative."

A defeat for Bolton and Bush would be the first major battlefield victory for Senate Democrats since Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords abandoned the GOP in 2001 and handed control of the Senate to the Democrats.

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