WASHINGTON—Republican Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio has a reputation as an unyielding fiscal hawk. He once voted against a water spending bill because it cost too much, even though it included a number of Ohio projects.
He's made a name for himself in the Senate—for better or worse—for bucking President Bush on tax cuts, arguing that they would increase budget deficits.
But few expected him to become a Republican thorn on Bush's foreign policy. Yet, that was his burden on Wednesday, a day after he derailed a Senate committee vote on John Bolton, Bush's nominee for United Nations ambassador.
Voinovich is a slight man with a weathered face and an unassuming manner. But he has more political experience than most senators. He's been the mayor of Cleveland, the governor of Ohio and is now the senator from one of the most crucial states in presidential politics.
During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday, Voinovich stunned Republicans and Democrats by announcing that he was reluctant to vote right then for Bolton after hearing a litany of Democratic complaints against Bolton's management style and claims that he's bullied and threatened underlings.
"We come down here and we do what our hearts and our consciences tell us to," he said afterward.
His decision put off a committee vote until next month and assured Democrats that committee staffers would continue to probe Bolton's background. It was an unexpected obstacle to what was already a rocky confirmation process for Bolton.
In a new sign of weakening support, another Republican member of the committee, Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, said on CNN Wednesday that Republican senators on the committee should discuss whether Bolton should withdraw his nomination.
Until Voinovich's move on Tuesday, all eyes had been on Chafee and Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, both of whom had expressed some discomfort with Bolton.
But as soon as Voinovich began to speak, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the top Democrat on the committee, said he exclaimed to himself: "I forgot all about Voinovich!"
Voinovich, who managed large bureaucracies as mayor and governor, said later that he places a high premium on "interpersonal skills and how we treat each other."
Some Republicans bristled that Voinovich objected even though he hadn't attended the two committee hearings devoted to Bolton's nomination. Voinovich apologized for his absence, saying he had other commitments as chairman of another Senate panel. The White House reached out almost immediately.
"In terms of Senator Voinovich, I understand he wasn't able to attend the testimony last week by John Bolton," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "We are more than happy to answer any questions that he has, and we are in touch with him about those matters."
One little-known conservative Web site announced it would run radio ads against Voinovich in Ohio.
Administration officials on Wednesday tried to shift the debate over Bolton away from his relationship with underlings and back to his views on how to change the United Nations.
In an interview with CNN, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: "I think we make a mistake if suddenly comments about management style become part of the confirmation process."
But clearly that's a key subject with Voinovich. In 1999, as a freshman senator, Voinovich put a hold on Clinton's nominee for U.N. ambassador, Richard Holbrooke. Voinovich, who is of Serbian ancestry, had concerns about Holbrooke's views on the Balkans. But, as he said Tuesday, he also had heard that Holbrooke had a reputation for arrogance.
"I brought him in. I spent an hour and a half with him, talked with him," he recalled on Tuesday. "I said, `You know, you're an arrogant guy. We've got problems at the United Nations, and the question is whether or not you're going to be able to go in there and work with other people to get things going, particularly since we have a little problem over there from public relations.'"
Voinovich eventually removed his hold, and Holbrooke was confirmed.
McClellan said Wednesday that the president stood behind Bolton and blamed Democrats for "playing politics with his nomination."
Voinovich, however, praised Biden on Tuesday, saying that "on occasion he gets political, but I think today he's very sincere about his concerns about this."
Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, another Republican on the committee, defended Voinovich. "He's very conscientious, concerned. That's his nature. He heard things that he didn't have an answer to, and we didn't give him an answer. That was not a political move on George Voinovich's part."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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