Bolton nomination sparks partisan debate

The Bush administration and GOP leaders on Thursday renewed their push for Senate approval of John Bolton as U.N. ambassador. Democrats maintained he is too brash and ineffective to be confirmed.

The sharp division all but guaranteed that lawmakers were headed toward another partisan showdown in the full Senate, although Democrats would not say whether their opposition would amount to a filibuster, as it did last year.

A Senate vote on Bolton could come as early as September, just as election season heats up with Bush’s foreign policy a major issue for voters. The United Nations has been at the forefront of international discussions on North Korea’s missile tests, Iran’s nuclear program and the crisis in the Middle East.

“I do believe, without any reservation whatsoever, that the Senate will and should give that advice and consent to this nominee because he becomes an integral member of the president’s national security team at a time when our nation is faced with these many complex issues,” said Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va.

After repeated failed attempts by GOP leaders to grant Bolton Senate approval, Bush last Aug. 1 used his executive power to sidestep Congress and temporarily assign Bolton to the job. Republicans decided to revive the matter this week after Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, who last year sided with Democrats in opposing Bolton, announced he would support Bolton this time.

Several Democrats said during the nomination hearing Thursday that their views had not changed, citing reports that Bolton has alienated other ambassadors and failed to make progress on U.N. reform efforts.

“My concern is that at the moment of the greatest need for diplomacy in our recent history, we are not particularly effective at it,” said Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Biden and others did not say whether they would try to block an up-or-down vote in the full Senate as they did last year; such a move that can be blocked by 60 of the 100 senators.

Because Voinovich is siding with his party on Bolton, the Senate’s 55 Republicans would need only five Democratic votes to shut off debate and approve Bolton’s nomination. Last year, three Democrats voted to end the delays: Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has “not made a decision either way” on calling for a filibuster, his spokesman said.

Political experts said choosing not to filibuster Bolton could be a political tactic in an election year, when Democrats plan to argue the Bush administration has failed at bringing peace to the Middle East and bringing U.S. troops home.

“To turn the issue to a Democratic filibuster, rather than Bush’s foreign policy is a mistake,” said Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Boston University.

If Bolton is at the United Nations, “he’s someone they can point to” as obstructing real progress, he said.

Bolton, once described by colleagues as a bully who led witch hunts to punish colleagues who disagreed with him, struck a conciliatory tone before the committee.

Bolton said he had established “good working relationships” with other U.N. members and was making progress, telling the senators, “I have done my best to work with others to advance our national interests.”

The hearing was interrupted several times, twice by protesters opposing his confirmation. Later, while Bolton was being questioned about North Korea by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a water pipe above the hearing room burst and began dumping water between Bolton and Nelson.

Shrugging off the criticism of Bolton, Republicans predicted he would be confirmed soon for the position on a permanent basis. The White House praised the work Bolton has done so far.

“We think Ambassador Bolton has done a terrific job,” White House press secretary Tony Snow said. “He’s won over a lot of critics while building alliances on a range of issues, including Iran and North Korea, and working tirelessly to achieve meaningful results on reforms at the United Nations.”

Speaking from prepared testimony, Bolton called for a “durable solution” to the violence in the Middle East and the need to “defang” Hezbollah.

“We are actively considering a variety of methods” to disarm Hezbollah, including establishing an international security force in the region, he said.

Bolton also said the U.S. remains committed to bringing peace to Darfur and that “modest progress” has been made in U.N. reform. “The goal now is to identify priority targets where progress can be made” and create a “lasting revolution of reform,” he said.

Sen. Richard Lugar, the committee chairman, said Bolton exhibited “experience and accomplishment” and noted the Senate has already conducted an “exhaustive review” of Bolton’s credentials.

By resubmitting Bolton’s nomination to the Senate, the president has made clear “that Ambassador Bolton is important to the implementation of U.S. policies at the United Nations and to broader U.S. goals on the global stage,” said Lugar, R-Ind.

© 2006 The Associated Press