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One Slim Win After Another for Bush

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Times Staff Writer

All the polarizing political dynamics of George W. Bush’s presidency condensed into a single illuminating episode Thursday, as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to advance the nomination of John R. Bolton.

Like so many of Bush’s initiatives, the nomination of the blustery Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations energized conservatives, outraged Democrats and squeezed moderates in both parties.

And, as he has many times before, Bush won the legislative fight by the narrowest of margins -- maintaining just enough support from Ohio Sen. George V. Voinovich and other committee Republicans critical of Bolton to overcome uniform Democratic opposition and move the nomination to the Senate floor on a party-line vote.

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The vote demonstrated again Bush’s willingness to live on the political edge -- to accept achingly narrow margins in Congress and at the ballot box to pursue ambitious changes that sharply divide the country.

“This is their style of governing,” said Marshall Wittmann, a former aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who is a fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist party group. “You build upon the base and pressure the middle and you ignore the other side. You push across the finish line and you move on. In their mind, a win is a win, regardless of how narrow or polarizing it is.”

This approach has allowed Bush to move more of his agenda into law than appeared possible for a president twice elected with narrow majorities in the electoral college. But it has also bitterly divided the country over his presidency, and so alienated congressional Democrats that Bush often needs virtually lock-step Republican support to pass his priorities.

The next few weeks will severely test Bush’s ability to maintain that partisan unity, as Congress approaches explosive battles over ending filibusters of judicial nominees and restructuring Social Security -- as well as the Senate floor vote on Bolton.

Rarely has a nomination reached the floor with a less enthusiastic send-off than Bolton’s received when the Foreign Relations Committee voted, 10 to 8, to forward his nomination without recommendation.

During the debate, Voinovich and other committee Republicans expressed sufficient reservations about Bolton to sustain hope among his critics that enough GOP moderates might defect to sink the nominee in the floor vote.

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“What Voinovich did was reframe the debate back on the big issues, create the space for people to oppose him and bolster the Democrats,” said Steven C. Clemons, a senior fellow at the centrist New America Foundation think tank and a leading opponent of the nomination.

Voinovich said he would oppose Bolton on the floor.

But several Capitol Hill aides from both parties said they believed a narrow confirmation vote for Bolton appeared likely unless Democrats mounted a filibuster against him.

One senior Democratic Senate aide, who requested anonymity when commenting on the pending vote, said that he did not believe Democrats would filibuster or that enough Republicans would join Voinovich to block confirmation.

Thursday’s committee vote on Bolton provided a textbook case of the gambles that Bush had taken in devising his agenda -- and the forces that had allowed him, more often than not, to collect on those bets.

Historically, the post of U.N. ambassador has drawn less controversy than other positions on the national security team, such as the secretaries of State and Defense.

But the White House virtually guaranteed a storm by selecting Bolton, an outspoken critic of the United Nations and a conservative whose performance as undersecretary of State for arms control had antagonized Democrats and many Republicans who supported an internationalist approach to foreign policy.

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At various points through the confirmation process, half of the 10 Republicans on the Foreign Relation Committee expressed doubts about Bolton’s fitness for the job.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), the committee chairman and a dean of the “internationalist” Republicans who prize relations with traditional allies, repeatedly emphasized that he supported Bolton as the president’s choice -- perhaps subtly signaling that Bolton would not have been his pick.

Even while endorsing Bolton on Thursday, Lugar criticized his managerial and personal style in unusually blunt language, saying the nominee “unnecessarily personalized” disputes and “made incorrect assumptions about the behavior and motivations of subordinates.”

Still, Lugar was demure compared to Voinovich, the second-term senator and former Ohio governor, who excoriated Bolton in terms more scathing than almost any Democrat.

Strikingly, Voinovich not only criticized Bolton’s combative personal behavior but made a philosophical case against the appointment. “I’m afraid that his confirmation will tell the world that we’re not dedicated to repairing our relationships or working as a team, but that we believe only someone with sharp elbows can deal properly with the international community,” Voinovich said.

Several Republicans strongly endorsed Bolton, with Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) the most enthusiastic. But Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island voiced unease with the choice, echoing earlier complaints from Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel, though Hagel struck a more neutral tone Thursday.

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Yet after all the doubts expressed by Voinovich and fellow GOP skeptics, all voted to keep Bolton’s nomination alive by sending it to the floor without a recommendation.

One factor in Thursday’s vote was the disinclination of Republicans to deny Bush his choice for an appointment to the executive branch.

As Lugar put it, many believed it would take “absolutely extraordinary circumstances” to tell the president, “You can’t have your choice.”

But the vote also reflected the Republican lawmakers’ reluctance to impede the agenda of a president whose approval rating among GOP voters has consistently stood about 90%. And Bush’s ability to discourage defection has been strengthened by Republican gains in the House and Senate in the 2002 and ’04 elections.

That has allowed the White House to argue that Republicans have benefited from holding together -- in contrast to the catastrophic losses congressional Democrats suffered in 1994 after the party splintered on President Clinton’s agenda in his first two years.

“Republicans understand that George W. Bush has brought more Republicans [into Congress] ... and that means something,” said one GOP strategist who requested anonymity when discussing party matters. “In a default position, Republicans are going to vote with him and stay with him. He’s got a lot of money in the bank.”

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The White House’s strategy means that the president faces the constant danger of overdrawing his account.

On big issues, Bush hasn’t typically embraced consensus policy proposals designed to attract the votes of 60 to 65 senators. More often, he has pursued changes that the White House recognizes are unlikely to attract more than a slim legislative majority -- if they can attract a majority at all.

Sooner or later, the extraordinary party loyalty that has fueled Bush’s legislative success may break down, with efforts to ban the filibuster and restructure Social Security the most likely candidates for a rebellion among moderate Republicans.

But Thursday’s committee vote underscores the powerful impulse among most congressional Republicans to side with the president, even when he pushes ideas beyond their ideological comfort zone.

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