When Senate Democrats stopped John Bolton’s nomination as U.N. envoy Thursday, it was, for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the horrid end to a nightmarish week.
President Bush could use his recess appointment power in the next ten days to install Bolton as interim U.N. ambassador until the end of 2006.
Presidents from Washington to Clinton have used that power. For Bush to use it in Bolton’s case would "be another example of the Republican majority abusing its power and growing increasingly out of control," said Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
In the Bolton battle, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid proved that the Democrats can run the show — and they are running the show — with only 41 out of 100 senators.
Reid seems to have become Frist's Dementor, the frightening creature in the Harry Potter saga. According to one reference work, "Those kept in the company of a Dementor for too long are often driven insane" and it wouldn't be surprising by week's end if Frist felt he was succumbing to that fate.
Chance to regain control
When the Senate returns from its one-week recess, Frist will have a chance to regain control with bills ready for action on asbestos litigation reform and energy production, but he’ll soon likely face a contentious battle on taxpayer funding of embryonic stem cell research.
“It is not the fault of the Democratic caucus,” Reid said on the Senate floor Thursday night after the roll call vote in which Frist came up three votes short of the 60 he needed to end debate on Bolton and to move to confirm him.
The good news for Frist was that three “Red State” Democrats, Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, voted with the Republicans on Bolton. The bad news was that bipartisanship was limited to those three.
“We’re not here to filibuster Bolton,” Reid insisted. But until the Bush administration gives Democratic Sens. Chris Dodd and Joe Biden State Department and National Security Agency documents which Bolton worked on or perused, Reid can stop Bolton from ever getting to the U.N.
It is unlikely that any of the 40 Democrats who voted with Reid would have any reason to abandon him in the weeks ahead.
Reid’s party cohesion has been pretty impressive.
Feinstein's change of mind
Case in point: Late Wednesday afternoon, I asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., whether she would vote for a cloture motion to end debate on Bolton’s nomination.
She replied, “Well, I keep an open mind, but at this stage, I intend to vote for it, for cloture.”
At that point, Feinstein’s Democratic colleagues Dodd and Biden were urging Democrats to vote against the cloture motion.
A ‘no’ vote would give them leverage to try to get the documents on Bolton from the Bush administration.
But Feinstein said Wednesday afternoon she had already decided to vote “no” on the nomination.
So, you see no need to get more information on Bolton, I asked Sen. Feinstein, you already have enough reason to vote “no” on the nomination?
“That’s right,” she said.
Sometime in the next 24 hours, Feinstein changed her mind. She voted against cloture, one of the surprises that bushwhacked Frist on the Senate floor.
There are lessons here.
Four lessons of the Bolton episode
First Lesson: No senator’s vote is ever certain, until the vote is cast. Proceed at your own risk, particularly when a senator says “at this stage," or “I intend to vote for” a bill or nomination.
Second Lesson: In the Senate, a majority leader can not govern with 55. He needs 60. This raises the stakes in next year’s key Senate races such as in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, where endangered GOP incumbents are trying to retain seats, and West Virginia and Florida where the Republicans are trying to win Democratic-held seats.
Third Lesson: Every vote is precious. Sen. Arlen Specter, R- Pa., left the Capitol shortly before 4 pm Thursday, headed to Philadelphia. If the GOP leadership had known it was going to need him, it might have been able to persuade him to stay.
Fourth Lesson: The display of comity and goodwill on a piece of legislation at 3:15 pm may be utterly irrelevant to a vote on another issue three hours later.
It was at 3:15 Thursday that Specter went before cameras in the Senate Radio-TV Gallery with Feinstein and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Verm., for a bipartisan festival of exhilaration over the Judiciary Committee’s approval of the asbestos litigation reform bill, a measure “more than two decades in the making,” said Specter.
“Pat Leahy has been a tower of strength here,” Specter said, to which Leahy replied, “Sen. Specter’s chances of getting this bill through originally were like Giacamo winning the Kentucky Derby, but he won!”
“It’s been amazing to see the staying power of Arlen Specter and the really open and gracious way in which he has handled this,” Feinstein added.
Earlier Thursday afternoon in that same room, a bipartisan group of Energy Committee members happily announced their approval of a massive energy bill, which offers some hope for those suffering from electricity blackouts, high fertilizer prices, and the cost of driving to work.
'Healthy departure' from partisanship
“At a time of such rancid partisanship, this is a healthy departure from that,” declared Energy Committee member Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota.
“They said it couldn’t be done at a time when politics in America is so polarized,” said Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D.
Were the Democrats deliberately talking up bipartisanship Thursday afternoon, knowing that in a few hours they’d deal a sublimely partisan blow to Frist?
Maybe not, but the afternoon’s bipartisan oratory neatly set the stage for a dramatic reversal of fortune Thursday night.
Earlier in the week, a bipartisan group of 14 senators (including Landrieu, Pryor and Nelson) had taken the initiative away from Frist by designing a deal that allowed three of Bush’s judicial nominees to get up-or-down votes while putting two others in doubt.
More importantly, the deal allowed the Democrats to retain the right to use extended debate, the filibuster, to block future Bush nominees.
Especially galling for Frist was that seven Republicans, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, put their signatures on this accord, preventing him for now from calling for a vote on lowering the debate-ending threshold from 60 to 51.
Looking back at the shambles of a week for Republicans, Democratic analysts gloated.
Shrum sees 'terrible week' for Frist
Bob Shrum, the former campaign strategist for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews Thursday night, “I think Bill Frist had a really terrible week.”
“Bill Frist lost today. Badly,” said a Tuesday afternoon e-mail from Hillary Clinton campaign aide Ann Lewis. “Frist's right-wing allies are furious that he could not deliver on his promises…. Frist needs the right-wing power brokers on his side to win the 2008 presidential primaries. His hopes for victory just took a serious hit.”
When he’s back on the Senate floor on June 7, Frist’s “to-do”: list seems obvious: win confirmation for Janice Rogers Brown and other Bush judicial nominees, pass the asbestos and energy bills, and thus establish the momentum he’ll need to take on the House-passed stem cell bill which two Republicans, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn have said they might filibuster that bill.
Frist has said that obstructing legislation through filibuster is a tradition he’ll preserve; he only wants to end obstruction of nominees by filibuster.
To win the public relations battle, he’ll probably need to explain the fine points of all this to interested spectators across the nation — and then go back and ask his whips to check their vote tally sheets one more time.