McClatchy Newspapers

John Bolton, the controversial U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, seemed destined for another partisan showdown on the Senate floor as hearings began Thursday on a new bid for his confirmation.

Democratic leaders aren’t sure they have enough votes to block a second vote on the sharp-tongued, longtime U.N. critic, one year after President Bush evaded the first standoff by giving Bolton a temporary appointment to the job while Congress was in recess. Bolton’s term expires at year’s end unless he’s confirmed.

With the United Nations potentially pivotal to easing the world’s many trouble spots, Bolton’s confirmation could become a surrogate battleground for Democrats and Republicans to show voters how they differ over foreign policy as congressional elections approach this fall.

It started at Thursday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, as Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., bemoaned the Iraq war and vented frustration that American troops are dying to defend Iraqi leaders who don’t support Israel. She told Bolton, "I’m not putting this on you. I can’t pin any of what I said on you, and I don’t intend to."

Republicans said Bolton speaks well for the Bush administration, has proved more capable than critics predicted and has made headway in complex situations. "The nature of the U.N. is, not everyone’s with us," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.

Committee chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said, "The president has made clear that this is not a casual appointment. He wants a specific person to do a specific job."

Democrats said they remain concerned that Bolton and the Bush administration are paying lip service to diplomacy while alienating U.S. allies and reinforcing tensions with other nations. They cited published reports that other ambassadors dislike working with Bolton. They worried about U.S. effectiveness with Iraq, Iran, Israel and Hezbollah. And they spoke of only limited success at persuading China, Russia and South Korea to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

"My concern is that at the moment of the greatest need of diplomacy in our recent history, we are not particularly effective at it," said Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the panel’s ranking Democrat.

Added Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.: "My concern is not that he’s a bully, but that he’s an ineffective bully."

Bolton, polite even as Democrats baited him, told senators, "I have done my best to work with others to advance our national interest. I do believe important advances have been made."

Outside the hearing, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said of Bolton: "I never did like him very much."

But Reid and Democratic Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said they don’t know if their 45-member caucus will put up the 41 votes they need under Senate rules to block a confirmation vote. They said they won’t count votes until Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democrats weigh in.

The committee didn’t vote Thursday, and the Senate takes a month-long recess after next week, so the issue may not come to a head until September.