Standing before the Senate chamber in May 2005, Senator George Voinovich made a tearful, heartfelt plea to his colleagues, urging them to vote against confirming John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “I came back here [to the Senate] and ran for a second term because I'm worried about my kids and my grandchildren,” the Ohio Republican said. “And I just hope my colleagues will take the time, and before they get to this, well, do some serious thinking about whether or not we should send John Bolton to the United Nations."
One year later, Voinovich likely regrets having given that speech. With Democrats threatening a filibuster, President Bush gave Bolton a recess appointment in July of that year. And in the ensuing 14 months, Voinovich has come to feel that the man he once called the “poster child of what someone in the diplomatic corps should not be” is now fit to serve as a cabinet-level ambassador. Writing in support of Bolton's re-nomination in The Washington Post, Voinovich set into motion a chain of events that will lead to a new Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote on the Bolton nomination, scheduled for tomorrow.
With Voinovich now on board, the Republican leadership thinks it can ram through Bolton's re-nomination. They better think again. This time around, in fact, the confirmation of John Bolton is even less assured than it was a year ago. For the sake of American foreign policy, that's a good thing.
Having never garnered a positive referral from the Foreign Relations Committee to the full Senate, Bolton still needs to get a passing vote there. And in that committee, his fate is far from certain. Though Voinovich has flipped from con to pro, Senator Lincoln Chafee may reverse his prior vote and block Bolton in committee this time. (In mid-August, Senator Hagel had told Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation that he was undecided on how he would vote. Today, Reuters reported that he had decided to vote in favor, after having met personally with Bolton.)
Facing a tough primary challenge from his right on September 12, Senator Chafee may be inclined to vote for Bolton. But he remains officially undecided. Should the vote be delayed until after his primary, sources close to the Bolton debate tell the Prospect that he would likely vote against the nomination.
But should Chafee succumb to White House pressure and vote for Bolton, the nominee will likely face a crippling Democratic filibuster. On the Senate floor today, Christopher Dodd urged his colleagues to "deny [Bolton] an up or down vote." According to most vote tallies, Bolton does not have the necessary 60 votes for cloture. Last time around, three Democratic senators, Mark Pryor, Mary Landrieu, and Ben Nelson, voted with the Republicans on Bolton's behalf. With Voinovich voting with the Democrats, that left Bolton three votes short of cloture. This time around, should all 55 Republicans plus Pryor, Landrieu, and Nelson vote for cloture, Bolton would still come up two votes short.
The question now is where among the Democratic ranks the Republican leadership might peel away two votes. For a while, it seemed as if the GOP had its sights set on the two New York senators, Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton. Since Bolton was re-nominated this summer, the White House has incorporated Jewish groups into their confirmation lobbying efforts. This lobbying took on new urgency once the United Nations, and thus John Bolton, became the focus of daily news coverage following the flare up in Lebanon and Israel. But so far, Schumer and Clinton are not being swayed by the lobbying of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other hawkish groups.
Should Bolton fail to secure the requisite votes to overcome closure, he could still accept a second recess appointment. But he would not be able to draw a salary, and his credibility as U.S. ambassador would be genuinely crippled.
Back in March 2005, the Bolton nomination battle gave Democrats a much-needed shot in the arm following the 2004 election losses. After tomorrow's committee vote, the Democratic leadership will once again face the choice of whether or not to support a filibuster. This time around, the stakes are much higher. In a little over a year in office, it is clear that Bolton has exerted a real and pernicious influence on the most important issues facing the United States at the United Nations: With a tenuous truce barely holding in Lebanon, Bolton was quick to dismiss the effectiveness of a peacekeeping force; on Iran, Bolton and his fellow saber-rattlers in and around the administration are pushing us closer to a military confrontation; and with Bolton's prodding, the United States has grown ever more isolated in the United Nations, giving, for instance, China greater opportunity to advance its foreign policy agenda at the expense of humanitarian causes, like Darfur, in which it has little interest.
The Democrats have a chance to lead Bolton into the sunset of his career in public service. For the sake of restoring some sanity to our foreign policy, here's hoping they understand the opportunity before them.
Mark Leon Goldberg is a Prospect senior correspondent and a writer in residence at the United Nations Foundation. The opinions expressed are his own.
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