Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- The lavishly acclaimed new era of good feelings in the Senate lasted less than four days. Senators, anxious to begin another long recess, reverted to mean and brutish behavior a little after 7 p.m. Thursday when Democrats blocked an up-or-down vote on John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations. So much for supposed congeniality wrought by the Republican agreement not to tamper with the filibuster.

 The word around Capitol Hill last week was that the deal brokered by self-styled preservers of Senate traditions would return the chamber to a golden era (that I apparently missed during 48 years of close observation). Not only would President Bush's judicial nominations get up-or-down votes, but Under Secretary of State Bolton finally would be confirmed without a filibuster.

 Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid guaranteed to Majority Leader Bill Frist the 60 senators needed to invoke cloture on Bolton. Republican vote counters agreed. In the event, only three Democrats voted for cloture. Why was the Republican head count so inaccurate? They had not calculated the intensity of one Democratic senator: Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut.

 Dodd long has been a popular Washington figure, well-liked by senators on both sides of the aisle. I have been criticized for being too hard on Dodd, pointing out his obsession with normalizing U.S. relations with Communist Cuba. That was the original source of his vendetta against Bolton, dating back to 2002 when Bolton disclosed intelligence information that charged Fidel Castro with biological weapons development.

 Dodd's campaign against Bolton, of course, could not be limited to Cuban relations. It began with accusations that Bolton was unpleasant to subordinates. That influenced hardly anyone but Sen. George Voinovich, the feckless but well-meaning Ohio Republican who single-handedly slowed the confirmation progress.

 Dodd since then has concentrated on Bolton's use of intelligence intercepts. When intelligence czar John Negroponte unconditionally denied the Foreign Relations Committee access to the intercepts in examining Bolton, Sen. Joseph Biden -- the committee's ranking Democrat -- seized on this as reason to delay a vote against Bolton.

 Not for the first time, the Bush White House congressional relations team was caught napping. Republicans began worrying Thursday when Dodd was observed working over his fellow Democrats. His complaint that Bolton had shared intercepts with a subordinate without clearance from the National Security Agency was irrelevant and inaccurate. But he mobilized Democrats even though his campaign against Bolton was a decision in search of justification.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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