Senate Democrats again blocked a confirmation vote on John R. Bolton on Monday, opening the possibility that President Bush would bypass lawmakers and use a recess appointment to install the nominee as U.N. ambassador.
Despite last-minute lobbying by the White House and public pressure from Bush, Republicans fell short of the 60 votes needed to break a Democratic filibuster and cut off debate on the nomination.
Afterward, Democrats and Republicans indicated that the 54-38 vote dimmed the prospects of Bolton’s nomination making it through the Senate and underscored the high political stakes involved for both parties.
“It’s a pretty tough climb” for the White House to win Bolton’s confirmation at this point, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Intelligence Committee, told reporters.
Under the Constitution, the president has the right to make appointments without a confirmation vote when the Senate is not in session. However, such an appointment lasts only through the next congressional year -- which in Bolton’s case would be until January 2007.
Presidents generally avoid the practice for fear of antagonizing Congress, and because the appointees then bear the stigma of not having the Senate’s backing.
Bush has made recess appointments of judicial nominees who were blocked by Democratic filibusters. And White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan refused to rule out the possibility that the president might appoint Bolton while Congress is on its weeklong July 4 break.
Monday’s vote was a blow to Bush as well as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who has searched for weeks for the votes to secure Bolton’s confirmation. It followed a tense Senate showdown last month over the president’s right to demand up-or-down votes for judicial nominees.
Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, urged the White House to continue to fight for Bolton’s confirmation. At a news conference after the vote, Allen and Roberts accused Democrats of obstructionism and of impeding U.S. efforts to reform the United Nations.
“It would maybe better serve our country to have an up-or-down vote” than a recess appointment, Roberts said. Sending Bolton to the United Nations without Senate confirmation, he said, “would weaken not only Mr. Bolton but also the United States” at the world body.
Both parties have said the fight was over more than Bolton’s qualifications to represent the country at the U.N.
Republicans say the Democrats are determined to obstruct Bush’s second-term agenda and push the president closer to lame-duck status by handing him a defeat on a nominee whom Bush has strongly backed.
Democrats respond that they are protecting their rights as a minority party at a time when Republicans control the White House and both chambers of Congress. The fear of political irrelevance, Democrats say, united their caucus in opposition to Bolton.
At a news conference hours before the vote, Bush sidestepped the question of whether he would resort to a recess appointment and instead urged the Senate to approve his nominee.
“Put him in,” Bush said. “If they are interested in reforming the United Nations, they ought to approve John Bolton.”
Republicans -- who hold 55 seats in the Senate -- expressed frustration that they had been unable to get an up-or-down vote on Bolton, which they believed they could win.
Before such a vote can take place, Republicans must clear the procedural hurdle of breaking a filibuster. Senate rules require 60 votes to end debate.
“This nomination has traveled a long road,” Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said before Monday’s vote. “I’m hopeful that it can be concluded today.”
Democrats, Frist said, were unfairly “obstructing a highly qualified nominee” and, in doing so, were “doing harm to our country.”
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee and one of the leaders of the opposition to Bolton, described Monday’s vote in different terms. He said it was about whether the White House had the constitutional right to determine what evidence the Senate could request in considering presidential nominees.
“The vote we’re about to take is not about John Bolton,” Biden said. “It’s about taking a stand, the United States Senate taking a stand.”
Three Democrats joined 51 Republicans in voting to close debate. Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), one of Bolton’s harshest critics, and Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) joined 36 Democrats in voting against the motion. California’s Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, voted against closing off debate. Eight senators, five Democrats and three Republicans did not vote.
Republicans say Bolton -- a former undersecretary of State and longtime U.N. critic whom his supporters describe as a tough-talking diplomat -- is the ideal candidate to lead U.S. efforts to reform the world body.
Democrats consider him an ideologue who has bullied intelligence analysts and cherry-picked intelligence on Iran, Syria and Cuba.
Democrats have said they will end their filibuster if the White House hands over intelligence information and internal State Department documents that they say are relevant to the nomination.
The intelligence information consists of intercepted communications that Bolton had sought from the National Security Agency during his four years as undersecretary of State for arms control and international security.
Democrats want to see unedited copies of 10 intercepts given to Bolton that contained the names of 19 American officials. The administration instead showed edited versions of the intercepts, without the names, to the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Democrats rejected the move as inadequate.
Democrats also have asked for internal State Department documents about debate within the department over testimony Bolton was preparing to deliver to Congress in the fall of 2003 on Syria’s efforts to acquire biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. The administration rejected that request, saying the documents were irrelevant to the nomination.
The White House, under pressure from Senate Republicans, has volunteered to turn over some of the information. The latest offer came Monday from Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., who Biden said told him the administration was willing to make the internal State Department documents on Syria available to senators. Democrats rejected the offer, insisting that the administration hand over both the intercepts and the Syria documents.
After the vote, McClellan criticized Democrats in an e-mail.
“We have worked in good faith, yet Democratic leaders continue to move the goalposts,” he said. “They are not interested in documents, they are only interested in preventing progress and blocking John Bolton from getting about advancing reform at the U.N. The American people expect better.”
It was not clear whether Senate Republican leaders planned to bring up the nomination a third time. Last month, when Republicans first tried to win Bolton’s confirmation, Frist initially voted to end the debate, then switched his vote when it became clear the effort would fail. It was a procedural move allowing him to bring the issue up again.
But Monday night, Frist voted in favor of limiting debate and did not switch his vote in the face of defeat. An aide said the majority leader wanted to be on record as supporting Bolton “in case there isn’t another vote,” but insisted that Republicans might schedule one more confirmation vote.
Bolton’s nomination ran into trouble shortly after Bush put forward his name in March.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Republicans have a 10-8 majority, was expected to overcome Democratic objections and send the nomination to the full Senate in April.
But Voinovich, a member of the panel, joined with Democrats on April 19 in demanding more time to interview witnesses and collect evidence on the nominee.
A month later, the committee -- on a party-line vote -- took the rare step of sending the nomination to the full Senate with no recommendation after Voinovich denounced Bolton as a bully who would poorly serve U.S. interests at the U.N.
Democrats warned at the time that they would try to block a final vote by the full Senate unless the administration met their additional requests for information.
“Today’s vote was another setback for all who believe that nominees deserve an up-or-down vote, and that the U.N. can be an effective instrument of change in the world,” Frist said in a statement issued by his office after the vote. “These votes against John Bolton were votes against cleaning up the U.N.”
Times staff writer Edwin Chen contributed to this report.