Bush’s Declining Fortunes

The Republican-run Congress has now twice rebuffed President Bush on U.N. issues, raising questions about White House relations with Capitol Hill in the second term.

In the more serious snub, the Senate failed for a second time to get the 60 votes to bring to a vote John Bolton, Bush’s nominee to be U.N. ambassador. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan blamed it on a “minority Senate Democratic leadership.” That’s certainly part of the problem, but not the entire problem.

The White House is actually losing ground on Bolton. With 60 votes needed, Monday’s vote was 54 to 38; it was 56 to 42 on the previous try. The White House seems to have done little advance spadework on the Bolton nomination, leaving one of the Senate’s most respected committee chairmen, Richard Luger, R-Ind., to battle the unexpectedly deep opposition to the abrasive nominee.

The degree of miscommunication was all too evident Tuesday when McClellan said that the White House strategy was to continue pushing for an up-or-down vote on Bolton, perhaps under an agreement like the one that broke a deadlock on three Bush judicial nominees.

At the same time, Senate Republican leader Bill Frist was saying that he wouldn’t schedule another vote on Bolton and that the nominee’s fate was up to the White House. After lunch at the White House, Frist reversed course and said he would indeed keep trying for an up-or-down vote.

If the politics don’t change, that leaves the president with two unpleasant options: a humiliating withdrawal of the nomination (the customary face-saver is that Bolton would ask that it be withdrawn) or a recess appointment. That appointment would expire in January 2007, meaning the sluggish U.N. bureaucracy could just outwait the hard-charging Bolton’s much vaunted reforms.

In a lesser slight, the House voted, with Republicans in the majority and over White House objections, 221 to 184 to withhold 50 percent of the U.S.’s $440 million annual dues to the international organization unless the United Nations adopts certain congressionally directed reforms.

This kind of stuff plays well in the provinces, but is counterproductive to U.S. foreign policy. It makes the United States look like a petulant bully, arouses unnecessary resentment and, as the Bush administration argued, “undermines” U.S. efforts at reform. The measure will likely die in the Senate, but the fact is the president told the House not to do it and the House went ahead and did it.

The irony is that the Bush administration took office being dismissive of the U.N. and is now becoming one of the organization’s great supporters.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)