WASHINGTON—Senate Democrats on Monday once again blocked the nomination of John Bolton to be America's ambassador to the United Nations, setting the stage for President Bush to consider bypassing Senate confirmation by appointing Bolton while Congress is on a weeklong July Fourth recess.
Democrats complained that the White House has refused to turn over information about Bolton's activities while he was an official at the State Department, which they say is crucial to determining his fitness for the U.N. post.
Only three Democrats sided with Republicans in an attempt to end debate and bring up the nomination for a final vote. Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, a Republican who opposes Bolton's nomination, voted with the Democrats. Under Senate rules, Republicans needed 60 of the senators' 100 votes to end debate, but they mustered only 54.
"They put partisanship ahead of the Constitution and the Senate's right to receive information from the executive branch of government," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Monday of the Bush administration. "Unless the president comes forward with information which we're certain we're constitutionally entitled to, Bolton will not get enough votes" to end debate on his nomination and move to a decisive vote, Reid said.
On Monday, White House officials told one key Democrat that they were willing to provide some but not all of the material Democrats had requested. Democrats refused the offer and cast their challenge to Bolton as a defense of the Senate's institutional rights rather than the merits of his nomination.
Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, conceded that the White House offered to compromise on Monday. Biden said White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card told him that the White House might grant access to documents used to prepare Bolton's congressional testimony in 2003 on Syria's access to weapons of mass destruction. But Democrats also wanted a list of 19 U.S. officials or U.S. companies whose names Bolton obtained from national security intercepts. The administration declined.
Bush on Monday called anew for a quick, decisive vote, as top administration officials left open the possibility of placing Bolton at the United Nations without Senate confirmation.
"It's time for the Senate to give an up-or-down vote now," Bush told reporters at a news conference with leaders of the European Union. "Well, put him in. If they're interested in reforming the United Nations, they ought to approve John Bolton."
Over the weekend, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice didn't rule out a recess appointment for Bolton—a suggestion that infuriates Democrats.
The Constitution gives the president "power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session." Historians note that the provision recognized that in the 18th century, Congress met only for three-month sessions and the president needed some latitude to fill executive or judicial vacancies when Congress wasn't at work.
Before the 1940s, however, few presidents made appointments during breaks in a regular session of Congress. Such appointments have since become common, drawing complaints in some high-profile cases.
Asked whether Bush would act during the Senate's break, Rice told Fox News: "We'll see what happens this week."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan wouldn't foreclose the possibility either when pressed Monday. But he insisted that the White House was focused on getting Bolton confirmed. "We continue to urge the Senate to let him have an up-or-down vote on the floor," he said.
While the Constitution permits a president to make recess appointments, constitutional scholars have questioned whether they are appropriate in mid-session.
Under such a step, Bolton could serve only until the end of 2006, potentially weakening his influence when the United States wants to shape an overhaul of U.N. operations.
"My view is that, if Bolton were to go to the U.N. as a recess appointment, his standing would be considerably weakened," said Nile Gardiner, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research center. "The Bush administration needs to force a vote in the Senate—a full vote."
With the world body facing its biggest crisis in years and Washington demanding reform, "it's vitally important that Bolton go to the U.N. with the full backing of the U.S. Senate," Gardiner said.
Bush's most controversial recess appointment came in February 2004, when he named William Pryor to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta after Senate Democrats blocked his confirmation.
Democrats and liberals challenged that appointment in court, but the Supreme Court refused to hear the case last March. Still, in a statement issued with the decision, Justice John Paul Stevens warned that the issue wasn't settled.
"It would be a mistake to assume that our disposition of this petition constitutes a decision on the merits of whether the president has the constitutional authority to fill future (federal appeals court) vacancies, such as vacancies on this court, with appointments made absent consent of the Senate during short intra-session `recesses,'" Stevens wrote.
Though Stevens specifically addressed a judicial appointment, Reid alluded to the case Monday.
"The president will have to make a decision whether he wants to send this flawed candidate to the United Nations, under an also-questionable constitutional measure which is being tested in the courts as we speak," Reid said.
A Web site on recess appointments: www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/RS21308.pdf
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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