Republican Defector Scuttles Bolton – for Now

The Republican majority on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee suffered a stunning defeat today in its efforts to confirm the nomination of Undersecretary of State John Bolton as the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

In a surprise move during an unusually rancorous meeting of the committee, Republican Senator George Voinovich of Ohio told his colleagues that on the basis of new allegations against Bolton, he was not prepared to cast a vote today to send the nomination to a vote in the full Senate.

Voinovich said he had been unable to attend last week’s hearings because of prior commitments. However, he said he had misgivings about the nominee that were strengthened by new allegations of misconduct made during today’s committee session.

Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, moved several times for a vote on the nominee, saying he felt the committee had a full and accurate record of Bolton’s service.

Minority Democrats, however, offered a number of motions seeking more time to investigate allegations made against Bolton since his appearance before the committee last week.

Until Voinovich’s surprise statement, Lugar appeared confident of a straight party-line vote that would have produced a 10-8 majority in favor of a positive committee recommendation to the full Senate. The “no” vote of Voinovich would have produced a 9-9 tie. Senate rules mandate that a tie vote remains in the committee and does not go to the full Senate.

Lugar resisted several attempts to delay the committee vote today, even in light of new allegations of misconduct and improprieties revealed by Democratic members.

Leading the push for a delay was unsuccessful 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Senator Joseph Biden, the committee’s most senior Democrat.

Kerry asked, “Is the chairman saying it doesn’t matter what we know about John Bolton? If you don’t know some of the allegations that have come across the transom, then you are voting in the blind. Maybe you want to vote in the blind.”

Faced with a tie vote, Lugar then heard vociferous pleas for additional time from Biden, as well as Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, Barbara Boxer of California, and Barack Obama of Illinois, the newest member of the committee, and the lone African-American member of the Senate.

The surprise end of the committee session came without a vote, when Lugar agreed to have the group’s staff continue to investigate the new allegations against Bolton, and to convene another session of the committee after the Senate’s April break – in about two weeks. Bolton may well be called to testify again at that time.

Earlier, two Republican members of the committee were said to be wavering in their support for Bolton. Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska declared during the hearing that it was his intention to vote for Bolton in the committee, but that he was still uncertain whether he would support the nominee when he is considered by the full Senate.

And Bolton’s nomination was strengthened before the committee meeting when the second “undecided” Republican, Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, said he would support the nomination.

“Under the regrettable circumstances, I’m as comfortable as I can be,” Chafee 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.”

The heat generated by the hearing was extraordinary. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, under both Democratic and Republican chairmen, is often cited as one of the last models of bipartisanship, cooperation, and comity.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said Democrats would consider delaying Bolton’s nomination when it reaches the full Senate.

Republicans have 55 votes in the 100-member Senate, but Democrats could try to block a vote by mounting a filibuster. It takes 60 votes to end a filibuster.

Bolton, a consistent and outspoken critic of the United Nations, has always been a provocative choice. He has said, for example, that the loss of 10 stories from the United Nations headquarters building in New York would “make no difference” and that “There is no United Nations.”

And when the State Department was trying to move toward accommodation with North Korea over its nuclear program two years ago, Bolton publicly called the country’s leader, Kim Jong Il, a “tyrannical dictator.”

Allegations made during his confirmation hearings, however, concern his personal dealings and judgment.

The allegations attempted to paint Bolton as an imperious hothead who dressed down junior bureaucrats and withheld information from his superiors in his current job as the State Department’s arms control chief.

During his public confirmation hearings last week, senators repeatedly raised questions concerning Bolton’s alleged attempts to punish or pressure underlings who crossed him. A senior colleague, a former assistant secretary of state, called him a “serial abuser” and a “kiss-up kick-down” kind of person.

Bolton denied he did anything improper, but said he had “lost confidence” in two intelligence analysts who disagreed with him.

But just over the past weekend, a former contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, Melody Townsel, accused Bolton of harassing her and spreading false and damaging accusations against her in Kyrgyzstan when he was a lawyer in private practice. Her account has not yet been independently corroborated.

Bolton, 56, has served four years as arms control chief at the State Department, first under Secretary Colin Powell and currently under Secretary Condoleezza Rice. He was an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department under George W. Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, and held other government jobs during the Ronald Reagan administration. He is a graduate of Yale Law School.

He is widely known to be one of the current administration’s most conservative foreign policy officials, as well as one of the most abrasive.

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.