Senate Impasse on Bolton Persists
The Senate standoff over John R. Bolton’s nomination as ambassador to the United Nations continued Tuesday, with the administration rejecting what Democrats said was their latest compromise offer.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) searched for the 60 votes he would need to cut off debate on the nomination, but it was unclear whether he would seek a Senate vote this week or delay the confirmation battle until at least next week.
Democrats narrowly blocked a confirmation vote on Bolton late last month, saying the administration was unfairly withholding information. At the time, Democrats insisted they would be prepared to vote once the administration answered questions about State Department disputes over Bolton’s 2003 congressional testimony on Syria and about top-secret electronic surveillance reports Bolton sought over the last four years.
But prospects of an early vote seemed unlikely Tuesday. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) told colleagues at a closed-door luncheon that the administration had rejected a plan he offered over last week’s recess to provide Democrats with information on reports sought by Bolton about National Security Agency intercepts of overseas communications. The agency electronically monitors such contacts on a regular basis.
Although it is not unusual for senior officials to seek edited transcripts of NSA intercepts, Bolton sought unedited versions that included the names of U.S. officials whose conversations were recorded. Democrats have said they want to be sure that Bolton did not do so to intimidate intelligence analysts.
Democrats have pressed for weeks to see the versions of the intercepts given to Bolton. Dodd said he had several conversations with John D. Negroponte, director of national intelligence, during the recess. Dodd then proposed in a letter to Negroponte that Democrats would prepare a list of names and submit them to the administration to be checked against the names included in the intercept transcripts provided to Bolton.
Negroponte said, according to Dodd, that he “spoke to higher authorities” and was told the administration could not accept the proposal.
“I got a response saying, ‘No, they’re done with it,’ ” Dodd said. “They’ve said no to everything we’ve asked for.”
The White House dismissed Dodd’s appeal as “another political stalling tactic.”
“It is just more politics; it’s not about documents,” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said. “The Democratic leader of the Senate Intelligence Committee has already seen the information and said there was nothing improper.”
Democrats have complained that the administration has refused to act on their request for the names of those who were monitored. As part of weeks of talks about Bolton, Senate Intelligence Committee leaders were shown the documents with the names edited.
Senate Republicans pointed out that ever since President Bush nominated Bolton in March, the administration has provided the Foreign Relations Committee with hundreds of documents and access to more than two dozen witnesses. Bolton has testified before the committee, answered written questions and met individually with many senators.
Bolton’s nomination has suffered a string of setbacks, most notably when Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) joined with Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee to delay an April vote on the nomination and then force the committee to take the unusual step of sending it to the full Senate without recommending approval. Voinovich has agreed with Democrats’ portrayal of Bolton as a heavy-handed manager who intimidated intelligence analysts.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Bush could end the impasse if he chose to. “This is not a standoff yet,” he said after the luncheon. “It’s up to the president. We’re not the obstructionists. He is.”
Three Democrats joined with the Republican majority before the Memorial Day recess to vote for cutting off debate on the Bolton nomination, but the 56-42 vote in favor of limiting debate fell short of the 60 votes needed.
Frist, who in a procedural move had voted in favor of continuing debate, this time would join the majority.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who missed the vote, is expected to vote in favor of limiting debate. Republican strategists say that if they hold on to every senator who voted to limit debate and Specter joins them, they need to gain only two more Democratic votes to prevent a filibuster. They then would be expected to easily confirm Bolton.
But one of the Democrats the GOP is said to be wooing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), said the administration’s refusal to accept Dodd’s proposal had made her more determined to vote against limiting debate on the Bolton nomination.
“I think Chris Dodd made a very reasonable and practical proposal,” said Feinstein, who voted before the recess against limiting debate on the nomination. “At best, this is a questionable nominee, and I think the questions should be answered.”
Asked whether she was prepared to join in a Democratic filibuster of the nomination, Feinstein said: “At this stage, yes.”
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who voted last month to cut off debate on the nomination, said that after hearing Dodd, he was uncertain how he would vote.
“Sen. Dodd tried to be very reasonable in finding a compromise solution here,” Pryor said.
Times staff writer Edwin Chen in Washington contributed to this report.