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Bush Wants Floor Vote on Bolton

John Bolton during an April confirmation hearing

John Bolton during an April confirmation hearing. Uuri Gripas/Reuters/Corbis hide caption

toggle caption Uuri Gripas/Reuters/Corbis

After a meeting with President Bush Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist says he is planning to push for a floor vote on John Bolton as U.N. ambassador. The statement came after Frist commented earlier in the day that negotiations with Democrats had come to a standstill.

Bolton's confirmation has been stalled since May, in part because of a stalemate over classified documents involving Bolton. Democrats demanding the documents say that, as the State Department's arms control chief, Bolton retaliated against subordinates and intelligence analysts who disagreed with him. The White House remains steadfast in its refusal to release the documents, which the administration maintains are simply an excuse for Democrats to filibuster a nominee they don't like.

President Bush may choose to bypass the Senate by appointing Bolton during Congress' upcoming July 4 holiday recess. That would give Bolton the U.N. ambassador's job until the end of the current session of Congress in January 2007. But sending Bolton to the United Nations without the backing of the Senate would make him a temporary fill-in ambassador, raise questions about his authority and possibly diminish his standing.

Over the weekend, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the Bush administration is still focused on getting a straight vote on Bolton. She refused to address the possibility of a recess appointment.

NPR White House Correspondent David Greene explains the dispute:

Q: What are these documents that the Democrats are requesting?

There are two types. The first are internal State Department e-mails, memos and other communications dealing with Syria. The Democrats want to see whether Bolton was involved in preparing the department's congressional testimony on Syria. They're looking for evidence that Bolton shaped the State Department's intelligence assessments to exaggerate claims that Syria was trying to acquire unconventional weapons.

The second are classified intelligence intercepts from the National Security Agency (NSA). Bolton reportedly asked to have the classified names of some companies and U.S. citizens revealed to him. Democrats want to know why.

Q: How unusual is it for Bolton to have requested this kind of NSA surveillance information?

It's not clear how common it is. A lot of it is the everyday communication of people at the State Department. Certainly, classified intercepts are not uncommon. There's no doubt that in his job, Bolton would have had some level of access to the classified intercepts.

Q: Is there a question that this activity might have been illegal? Was it improper?

There's no indication that Bolton did anything illegal at this point. The leading Republican and Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have been briefed on the National Security Agency intelligence reports. Both of them — Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas and Democrat Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia — agree that they don't think Bolton did anything illegal. But Rockefeller has raised some questions about Bolton's handling and sharing of the names once they were given to him.

Q: Why is it so important to Democrats that the documents be handed over?

Democrats see this as a chance to drive home a lot of the points they've been making about Bolton and what they believe is his hands-on approach at State. They see a real chance to portray him as someone who manipulates intelligence, who would dig into everyday work at the department to forward his own agenda.

On a broader level, the Bolton nomination has really become a proxy fight in a war in which Senate Democrats view the White House and administration as arrogant and secretive.

Q: Do we know what Bolton's agenda was?

President Bush has described Bolton as hard-nosed and tough, and there's no doubt that in foreign policy he's a hard-line conservative. He was very much in favor of the war in Iraq. He believes that unconventional weapons are spreading around the world and are very dangerous.

But the crux of the debate centers on whether Bolton did anything inappropriate to push those views, and whether he intimidated people beneath him at the State Department who might have disagreed. The president has said it's his very toughness and no-nonsense style that makes Bolton right for the job in New York.

Q: Is there a chance that President Bush might release these documents?

It's highly unlikely.

Q: Why is it so important to the president not to make the documents public?

Interestingly, this goes all the way back to Vice President Dick Cheney's days in the Ford White House. Cheney was chief of staff at a time after Watergate, when the executive branch had lost much of its power and clout in Washington. And Cheney — like his boss, President Bush — has made it his mission to, as he puts it, ensure that executive branch powers are not eroded. He took his first stand shortly after coming to the White House, when Democrats asked for documents showing whom he met with as he was drafting Mr. Bush's energy proposal. And so the whole fight over Bolton and the documents has to be seen in that light.

Q: Has the president claimed executive privilege?

He has not used that as a formal legal response to the Democrats. Certainly, some of the arguments both the White House and State Department have made about why these documents should be protected have rumblings of executive privilege. But no, that is not an argument the president or his aides have made up until now.

Q: Why not?

Executive privilege is a loaded term in Washington, and presidents want to be careful about how many times they use it. If we reach a point where the Congress officially tried to subpoena these documents — and I'm not suggesting we're going to get to that point with Bolton — perhaps that's a legal argument the White House would consider, but it hasn't come up yet.

Q: If the documents aren't released, what are the prospects that Senate Republicans will get cloture to break the filibuster?

It would be surprising if the Democrats held up this nomination indefinitely.

Q: Is that even the Democrats' goal?

I don't think so. Delaware Democrat Sen. Joseph Biden has sent some mixed signals, but he's suggested that the Democrats are not going to put a permanent block on Bolton. But there is certainly a stalemate at the moment. You've got the White House remaining firm on a type of issue they've never caved on, and it would be unlikely that Biden and the Democrats would back down without getting something from the White House.

Q: Such as?

A little more openness about the documents, something to show a willingness on the part of the White House to give ground. When it comes to cloture, a lot is going to depend on Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's timetable, and whether he can pick off from the Democrats a few of the votes he thought he had when he brought cloture up before Memorial Day.

Q: Democrats say they're not filibustering the nomination, just the documents. What's the difference in process?

In terms of process, it's really a distinction without a difference.

Q: What about the political difference?

Well, the Democrats are trying to fudge it and suggest that they are not filibustering a nominee so soon after the big agreement they reached about avoiding filibusters in the future. They're suggesting that because they are willing to move forward with a confirmation vote — as long as they get the documents they want — they are not filibustering a person.

Q: Are there any signs that any Republicans other than Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio would vote against Bolton?

At least one, John Thune of South Dakota, has said he will definitely vote against Bolton. His staff says he just doesn't think Bolton is the right man for the job. But there is wide speculation, even from the White House, that this is about Thune's anger over a proposed military base closing in South Dakota — and not about any nomination.

Other Republican senators — like Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska — who had shown hesitation over Bolton when the nominee came up in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, now seem likely to support him.

Q: Are there any Democrats who might vote for Bolton?

Nobody has said they will. But it's possible a few Democrats up for re-election in states that Bush carried might do so.

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