Next Controversy: The John Bolton Debacle

With filibusters currently in disfavor, the Senate opened debate Wednesday on President Bush’s nomination of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations.

Bolton, defended by Republicans as a tough, blunt reformer and derided by Democrats as an intemperate abuser of government intelligence analysts, appeared headed to confirmation as one of the nation’s top diplomats.

Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., described Bolton as “a man of strong conviction” who would be effective as Bush’s agent at the United Nations for reforming the international organization. “He’s not a soft guy, no question about that.”

Bolton, according to Senate Democrats, has become a beneficiary of the last-minute decision Monday by a bipartisan group of senators to drop filibusters against three of Bush’s judicial nominees. The decision included an agreement by the senators to filibuster less.

“People are going to be reluctant” to filibuster to block a vote on Bolton, said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who has previously hinted at a filibuster and continued to insist Wednesday that he would try to block a vote on Bolton.

Shortly after the deal that opened the way to confirmation of three Bush judicial nominees and curtailed use of the filibuster, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., cleared the way for a Senate floor debate on Bolton when she withdrew a hold, a delaying device similar to the filibuster, on the nomination.

But Dodd and Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said they would not seek to block Bolton’s nomination through a filibuster.

Their statement seemed likely to lead to Bolton’s confirmation by a majority vote, since Republicans have 55 of the 100 Senate seats.

But the timing of a confirmation vote was uncertain. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., set up a timetable that could see Bolton confirmed as early as Thursday.

By unanimous consent, the Senate agreed to vote Thursday on cloture, a procedure to shut down a filibuster.

By themselves, Republicans don’t have the votes for cloture. It would take at least five Democrats to accomplish that. Such a vote would be a test of Monday’s agreement to scale back filibusters.

Some of the sharpest criticism of Bolton was delivered on the Senate floor by Republican Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio.

“We can do much better than John Bolton,” Voinovich said.

“John Bolton’s nomination sends a negative message to the world community,” Voinovich said in a letter to senators he read on the floor. “We cannot afford to put at risk our nation’s ability to successfully wage and win the war on terror with a controversial and ineffective ambassador to the United Nations.”

Voinovich’s voice broke near the end of his statement as he pleaded with Republicans to vote against Bolton.

Earlier this month, Voinovich joined the eight Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee in opposing Bolton. The nine other Republicans supported Bolton, resulting in the nomination being sent to the Senate floor without the usual recommendation that it be approved.

In opening the case for Bolton on Wednesday, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, acknowledged that the nominee had displayed a lack of certain diplomatic skill as one of the State Department’s top officials.

But Lugar said that Bolton had achieved some breakthroughs for the United States and was the president’s choice to fight for reform at the United Nations.

“We should not lose sight of the larger national security issues concerning U.N. reform and international diplomacy that are central to this nomination,” Lugar said.

Lugar said that Bolton, while challenging government intelligence analysts who questioned his views, had restricted his public statements to established U.S. policy.

Laying down the case for the Democrats, Biden said that Bolton had sought to intimidate intelligence analysts to change their reading of events to fit with his ideas.

“His credibility is in grave doubt,” Biden said.

Meanwhile, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee released separate versions of a briefing they received from the National Intelligence Agency on secretly recorded communications of government officials. Bolton has acknowledged that he asked for the names of the officials.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the committee chairman, said he “found no basis to question the justification, or appropriateness, of Mr. Bolton’s requests for the identities.”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the committee’s top Democrat, agreed that he had found nothing to show that Bolton had acted improperly, but said he had been denied crucial details on Bolton’s role.