Vote on Bolton nomination postponed as Democrats launch protest
WASHINGTON -- John R. Bolton's nomination as U.N. ambassador suffered an unexpected setback Tuesday when a Republican-controlled Senate committee scrapped plans for a vote in favor of a fresh look at allegations of unbecoming conduct.
The delay throws President Bush's provocative choice for the U.N. job into limbo. Despite his history of hostility to the United Nations and a reputation for blunt talk and a hard head, Bolton had appeared on his way to confirmation.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee set no new date for a vote, but a delay of at least two weeks seems likely while the committee looks into new allegations, including those of a Dallas businesswoman who says an irate Bolton chased her through a hotel and threw things at her at an international conference a decade ago.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush stood by Bolton unequivocally. "John Bolton is exactly the person we need at the United Nations at this time," he said.
The decision to postpone a vote closed a rancorous session in which some Democrats bluntly questioned Bolton's veracity and repeatedly appealed for more time to investigate Bolton.
"We'll all have to trust each other," said Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the committee chairman, in sealing the unanimous agreement.
Republicans hold a 10-8 majority on the panel, and Lugar had sounded confident early in the session that he had the votes to prevail. He pushed hard for an immediate vote, over loud objection from Democrats.
"Shocking," muttered Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., as Lugar tried to hustle the process along.
The tide turned when Ohio Republican Sen. George Voinovich spoke for the first time. He did not attend Bolton's two-day confirmation hearing last week but had been presumed to be a supporter.
"I don't feel comfortable voting today," Voinovich said.
Another Republican, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, also expressed reservations about a quick vote and warned that he may not support Bolton's nomination if it does move to the full Senate.
After the meeting, Voinovich said he had planned to support Bolton but changed his mind after an impassioned critique from Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.
Voinovich said he does not fear retribution from the White House, which had counted on solid Republican support on the committee.
"The passion on the other side on this, I don't think is political," Voinovich told reporters. "I think they raised some legitimate issues. I think we ought to find out what they are. I think we ought to get the information, get a chance to have (the allegations) rebutted," Voinovich said.
Bolton may be asked to return for more testimony, and the committee may also now call additional witnesses, Democrats said afterward. New witnesses could include government workers who would fear for their jobs if they come forward on their own, said Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the panel.
Democrats on the committee said they were continuing to receive fresh allegations of Bolton's behavior with subordinates and colleagues that was imperious or worse.
Biden read from what he said was a letter from a U.S. Agency for International Development worker in Kyrgyzstan, Melody Townsel, who alleged Bolton harassed her -- not sexually -- while he was in private practice representing a company.
"She's prepared to provide an affidavit. The letter she sent in, and I'm going to just take a second here, it says, 'When I was dispatching a letter to AID, my hell began. Mr. Bolton proceeded to chase me through the halls of a Russian hotel, throwing things at me, shoving threatening letters under my door, and genuinely behaving like a madman. I eventually retreated to my hotel room and stayed there. Mr. Bolton then routinely visited me to pound on the door and shout threats."'
The committee's delay came after the White House expressed renewed support for Bolton and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid had all but conceded the nomination would be cleared for a floor vote. Republicans have 55 votes in the 100-member Senate.
Lugar claimed the support needed to prevail as he began the committee meeting. A quick test vote suggested he was correct, as Republicans used their 10-8 majority to vote down a Democratic attempt to air new complaints about Bolton in private.
"We were not born yesterday," Lugar told the eight Democrats on the panel. "The Republicans want to vote for John Bolton. There are 10 Republicans here."
"Is the chairman saying it doesn't matter what we know about John Bolton?" asked Kerry. "If you don't know some of the allegations that have come across the transom then you are voting in the blind. Maybe you want to vote in the blind."
Critics' allegations have painted Bolton as a hothead who dressed down junior bureaucrats and withheld information from his superiors in his current job as the State Department's arms control chief.
Democratic senators raised repeated questions at Bolton's confirmation hearing last week about what Bolton may have done to punish or pressure underlings who crossed him. A senior colleague called him a "serial abuser."
Bolton denied he did anything improper but said he had "lost confidence" in two intelligence analysts who disagreed with him.
Bolton, 56, has served four years at the State Department, but he is not a diplomat by training. He was an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department under the first President Bush and held other government jobs during the Reagan administration.
A Yale Law School graduate, Bolton has been a lawyer in private practice and an academic. He is considered one of Bush's most conservative advisers on foreign policy, and one of the most caustic.
He has said, for example, that the loss of 10 stories from the United Nations headquarters building in New York would make no difference.