Few Options Left in Bolton Debacle

Hapless Senate Republicans. Emboldened Senate Democrats. And a second-term president facing nothing but politically risky choices. Those are the outcomes of a bruising, months-long battle over John Bolton’s nomination to be United Nations ambassador – and it’s not over.

Even as the Senate prepares to turn to a contentious fight over a Supreme Court vacancy, the chamber remains stalled over Bolton’s nomination, two weeks after Republicans failed for a second time to end a Democratic filibuster against the blunt conservative.

Barring a compromise between the White House and Democrats, it’s seeming more likely that President Bush will go around lawmakers and use his powers to single-handedly _ though temporarily _ appoint Bolton ambassador when Congress is out of town.

Some in Washington expected that to happen over the Senate’s Independence Day break. But Republicans say negotiations with Democrats continue, and a recess appointment, should it come to that, probably won’t occur until August.

The president has two other options _ both thorny because they threaten to leave him looking weak six months into a second term that finds him fighting poor poll numbers and a lame-duck label.

One, withdrawing the nomination, has been ruled out by the White House _ not a surprise, given the president’s reputation for stubbornness and the danger of upsetting conservatives, the core supporters of Bush and his party.

“Certainly we’d be unhappy if the president were forced to withdraw the nomination,” said Marshall Manson, spokesman for the Center for Individual Freedom, a conservative think tank.

However, he added: “I think our anger and our displeasure would be directed to the folks that have been leading the obstruction.”

Republicans claim that by blocking Bolton, Democrats are obstructing the United States’ ability to influence the reforms taking shape at the scandal-plagued United Nations.

Another option, compromising with Democrats, is looking just as improbable as withdrawing Bolton’s nomination.

In recent weeks, the White House has offered the Democrats some information they are demanding about Bolton before they allow his nomination to advance. But Democratic Sens. Joseph Biden of Delaware and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut _ Bolton’s most vocal critics _ have said they aren’t budging unless they get everything they want.

That’s not likely, said Thomas Mann, an expert on Congress and the presidency at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“The Bush administration’s view on this is, Congress should be kept in the dark and giving them information will only whet their appetite for more,” he said.

Instead of Bush bending to Democratic demands, conservatives say they would be mollified if he circumvents the Senate by using his power to appoint Bolton during a congressional recess. Under the Constitution, the appointment would last until the end of the next session of Congress _ no later than January 2007.

But that option also has drawbacks.

Some U.N. watchers say the United States would be sending damaged goods to the world body. A recess appointment also could offend senators eager to protect their chamber’s power, prompting them to be less cooperative on other pieces of his agenda.

Above all, the White House prefers installing Bolton at the United Nations through the traditional route of Senate confirmation. That path has been rocky.

Even though Bush’s Republicans control the Senate with 55 votes, they have been unable to secure 60 votes needed to end Democratic delays against Bolton and move to a final confirmation vote.

That has put into question the clout of Senate Republicans, both the de facto leaders who have tried to broker an agreement to end the deadlock _ such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona _ and those in formal top roles. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, a potential presidential hopeful in 2008, has been particularly hurt.

“Once again, he looks weak as a Senate leader,” said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

For their part, Democrats _ beaten down after sustaining presidential and congressional losses during last fall’s election _ found an issue to rally around. They’ve become energized by sticking it to Bush and his Republicans.

“It helps their morale. It’s a slow climb back up from demoralization,” Sabato said.

That Democrats now are emboldened makes a compromise all the more far-fetched.

No matter the ending to this squabble, one thing all sides can take some comfort in: Most voters don’t much care.

“To most people, it’s another inside-baseball, empty-the-bleachers Washington fight,” Sabato said. “It’s a summer squall – and it passes. Come September, no one remembers – and they’re certainly not going to remember in 2006” when the next congressional elections are held.

© 2005 The Associated Press