Politics & Policy

Why Bolton Will Win

Democrats find their hand is weaker than the last time around.

This week the Washington Post reported that three Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and John Sununu of New Hampshire — “might be wavering” on the Bolton nomination and thus might potentially stop the nomination in committee. In 2005, all three voted for the Bolton nomination to go to the full Senate, and, once there, voted against a Democratic filibuster. (There was never an up-or-down vote on the nomination.) Their possible change of heart, the Post reported, means that “maybe confirmation of Bolton’s temporary appointment isn’t a done deal after all.”

Senate sources are discounting the report. Although Hagel has said he wants to “revisit” his earlier decision to support Bolton, there is no evidence that he, or Chafee, or Sununu, will actually change his vote. The sources stress that doing so would require a significant reason — and a detailed public explanation. They point out that Ohio Republican Sen. George Voinovich, who opposed Bolton in 2005 but now says he will support him, felt the need to explain his change of heart formally and at some length, in an op-ed published in the Washington Post. Neither Hagel, Chafee, nor Sununu has given signs of having made a similarly momentous decision.

Hagel was asked about Bolton at a July 28 appearance at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “I have not decided, if Mr. Bolton comes up for vote, how I will vote,” Hagel said. “I had supported his nomination in committee prior, which, as you know, was reported out but never got a vote on the floor because the votes weren’t there, and I have generally taken the position — I’ve done this in the ten years that I’ve been in the Senate whether it’s a Democratic president, like when I first came to the Senate, President Clinton was in office, or a Republican president — that presidents deserve their people and if the President has confidence in that person and that person is qualified and not under indictment or detox or any other considerations, then generally I would have supported the president’s nominee, and I think only maybe one or two times in ten years I’ve not done that.” Hagel added that, “In this I case I want to revisit Mr. Bolton’s performance.”

Hagel’s use of the phrases “if Mr. Bolton comes up for a vote” and “never got a vote” suggest that he was saying he does not know how he will vote for Bolton in a final up-or-down vote in the full Senate. There’s no doubt that the Bolton nomination will come up for a vote in the Foreign Relations Committee (probably in early September), and nothing in Hagel’s statement indicates he would try to stop Bolton at that point.

In addition, the Post reported that it “probably doesn’t help that Bolton allegedly once tried to have Hagel’s top foreign affairs aide removed from his old State Department job.” That allegation involves a former Department official named Rexon Ryu, who now works for Hagel. But if Bolton had a conflict with Ryu, it occurred and was known well before Bolton came before the committee the first time, in 2005. If it were going to be a reason for Hagel to oppose Bolton, it seems likely the senator would have used it then. Now, if Hagel were to change his vote in committee based in any way on that factor, he would have to explain why it matters now when it didn’t then. (A Hagel spokesman declined to elaborate on the senator’s public statements about Bolton.)

Chafee has not made a public statement of his intentions in the Bolton matter. The Post reported that the Rhode Island senator “may be thinking he might have to move left” to win reelection this November — a move that might include voting against Bolton. But beyond suggesting that Chafee “may” think he “might” have to move left, there’s not much of a case to be made that Chafee has changed his mind. Chafee asked some persistent questions at the committee’s hearing on Bolton on July 27, but none that would suggest he might try to block Bolton. As for Sununu, the paper reported that there was “chatter” that the New Hampshire Republican was “miffed” over something Bolton had said about the current Mideast conflict, but in this case also, there is no indication that Sununu is considering changing his vote.

In the end, it seems likely that the only changed vote on the Foreign Relations Committee will be that of Voinovich, who will switch from a “no” to a “yes.” And that means the nomination will go to the Senate floor, where Republicans have the votes to confirm Bolton.

So the question will again be, as it was in 2005: Will Democrats filibuster? Last year, there was a vote for cloture, which would have required 60 votes to shut off debate on Bolton and move on to a final, up-or-down confirmation vote. That move failed, on a 54-38 vote. All but three Democrats — Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, and Mark Pryor — voted to sustain the filibuster, making it impossible for the nomination to go forward. President Bush later used his recess appointment power to place Bolton in the U.N. job.

This time, most observers agree there won’t be a filibuster. “I think that if you count the votes, a filibuster is unlikely,” New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, who voted for the filibuster last time, said on CNN July 30. “There’s a good part of Bolton. He’s been a staunch and very good defender of Israel at the U.N. There’s a bad part of Bolton. He seems to have a ‘go at it alone’ attitude at a time when we need the nations of the world on our side.”

But the absence of a filibuster will not mean the absence of a possibly bitter debate. Any senator can stop the Senate’s business and force a debate on Bolton. If that happens, Majority Leader Bill Frist would then file for a cloture vote, which would require two additional days before a vote could be held. During that time, Democrats could talk about Bolton all they want. And then, even if they lose a cloture vote, they could still force hours and hours of post-cloture debate. In all, they could stretch the Bolton matter into the better part of a week.

Will Democrats want to do that? Will they want to devote several of the last, precious, legislative days before the Senate breaks for the mid-term elections to John Bolton?

And if they do, what would be their case? Last year, the main objection to Bolton was that he had allegedly harangued, harassed, and pressured people who worked with him. Now, he has been in the U.N. job for a year, and there have been no reports of the kind of behavior alleged during his first confirmation battle. If there were, we would most likely know about it; the U.N. is not an entirely hospitable place for the American ambassador, and Bolton has been under intense scrutiny since he arrived. If he had thrown a stapler, or chased someone down a hallway, or pitched a screaming fit, word would have gotten out. Instead, Bolton has been quite visibly doing his job. “He hasn’t shot anybody, hasn’t thrown any coffee cups, and is on the air every day sticking up for America and working with diplomats,” says one Republican.

Perhaps the highest-profile criticism of Bolton’s performance came in a July 23 front-page story in the New York Times, which reported that some U.N. diplomats “see Mr. Bolton as a stand-in for the arrogance of the [Bush] administration.” Some of those envoys, according to the paper, say Bolton has “alienat[ed] traditional allies” and “combatively asserts American leadership, contests procedures at the mannerly, rules-bound United Nations and then shrugs off the organization when it does not follow his lead.” But the paper added that Bolton “has fulfilled the role of the United Nations’ most influential ambassador at full strength, firmly articulating the position of the United States government regarding Iran, North Korea and the Middle East.”

Taken as a whole, it wasn’t a particularly damning critique. And it suggests that the Senate debate will not be over the aspects of Bolton’s behavior that dominated the first Bolton confirmation fight, but will instead be yet another fight over the administration’s foreign policy in general. Republicans say they welcome the fight. “If they want to have a long discussion about security and spend the remaining Senate days after August talking about our issues, and not theirs, that’s a strategic error,” says one Republican. “If they are dumb enough to enter into that debate, then we’ll do it,” says another.

As it turns out, many Democrats do, indeed, want to enter into that debate. “I don’t buy the suggestion that we’re going to run away from this debate,” says Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. “That’s ridiculous. The reality is, Bush’s record on national security has actually made the country less safe. Bin laden is on the loose, terrorist acts are increasing around the world, Iran and North Korea are developing nuclear weapons….This is a debate that, should we choose to, we’d be more than willing to have.”

Add to that the presidential ambitions of Democrats Russell Feingold, who is trying to appeal to the left wing of the party, and John Kerry, who earlier this year prompted an extended debate on his get-out-of-Iraq-fast proposal when he had just a half-dozen votes to support him, and there will be a debate — a debate that might ultimately be as much about 2008 as about 2006. And after it’s all over, John Bolton will be confirmed.

 Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President — and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.

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