In the span of just a few weeks, President Bush seems to have lost a little of his grip on the flow of events in the nation’s capital. This is astonishing because his second term was off to such a strong start and because some good news is finally beginning to come back from Iraq and the Middle East.
Last week’s surprise decision to postpone John Bolton’s confirmation as U.N. ambassador until next month is worrying Senate Republicans. The White House apparently still intends to fight to get him through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, considering this a test of presidential power and determination to reform the United Nations.
The charges against Bolton of abuse and bullying tactics from associates in business and government are serious, however. And some Republican strategists are wondering if this fight, and others like it, is worth it.
They worry about the time and energy being invested in ideological matters of little interest to the public.
Republican senators already were being asked to hold the party line on a change in Senate rules that only a few of them really want _ to stop filibusters against judgeship nominations. That threatens to grind Senate business to a halt because of Democratic threats of retaliation against what they call a “nuclear” attack against one of their last remaining minority rights.
Across the Capitol, the House is consumed with troubles befalling its most powerful member _ Republican leader Tom DeLay of Texas. His ethical difficulties and intemperate remarks directed toward sitting judges, which he was later forced to withdraw, are threatening his leadership position.
These distractions have piled the nation’s growing economic problems in the congressional back seat or the trunk. Stock-market losses continue to set records for the year. Inflation is returning with a vengeance, led by gasoline price increases that are starting to squeeze lower- and middle-income wage earners.
The dollar continues to be battered against every major currency. Yet even a devalued dollar is doing next to nothing to increase American exports.
Congress needs to get after these problems, hold hearings, call in top brains from business and industry to find out what has gone haywire, one top GOP strategist told me last week. Yet it is overwhelmed by controversies over judicial qualifications, Bolton’s shouting encounters with subordinates, DeLay’s lobbyist junkets and whether it should have saved Terri Schiavo’s life.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote to approve Bolton was supposed to have been 10-8 along party lines. But _ in a move that caught everyone by surprise _ Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, had an attack of conscience. After listening to Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., describe a letter he had received from a woman aid worker claiming Bolton had shouted at her and pounded on her hotel room door, Voinovich withdrew his support.
This alleged shouting incident occurred long ago in the far-away nation of Kyrgyzstan. But it was enough to threaten the nomination by encouraging other Republicans to have second thoughts about the mercurial Bolton, too. Panel Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., pulled back the nomination rather than face a whipping.
Although Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is Bolton’s sponsor and boss, everyone knows that he has Vice President Dick Cheney’s patronage. Yet until Friday, Cheney had been virtually invisible in pushing for his confirmation, leaving Bolton to sink or swim.
In a question-and-answer session following a speech, Cheney urged a group of Republican lawyers to get on the phone and lobby senators for Bolton. But it may take phone calls from Cheney himself to save Bolton, since former Secretary of State Colin Powell is already said to be passing stories to wavering senators behind the scenes about Bolton’s temper.
Bush tried to paint the Bolton dispute as a partisan political matter. But some Republicans grumbled privately that he is detached from what’s happening in the Senate and no one is keeping him informed. His White House emissaries to the Senate are former staffers for conservative prairie state senators. They do not have the stature presidential liaison officers have had in the past to help Bush and the Republican senators communicate.
Then again, what kind of stature do we need here? The Senate started out the year talking about great events _ purple fingers in Iraq, orange shirts in Ukraine and the spread of democracy and freedom to many places. Now it’s trapped in a sleazy bit of business about a dreary hotel hallway in a former Soviet republic.
(John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service. E-mail jhall(at)mediageneral.com.)