Still brutish Senate

Posted: May 30, 2005 12:00 AM

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.

 AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, assured Republicans that Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Dodd's Connecticut colleague, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein would back Bolton. But Feinstein was lobbied ferociously by her California colleague Sen. Barbara Boxer. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pleaded with Feinstein over the telephone, but the senator said she was under too much pressure to vote against Bolton.

 Could the "nuclear option" (forcing consideration of judicial nominees by a majority vote) be used to confirm Bolton? It is not "off the table," as Reid claims. Frist intends to use it if Democrats filibuster additional judicial nominees. Not all seven Republicans in on the compromise would oppose him in that case.

 As a non-judicial nominee named to much less than a lifetime job, Bolton ought to be much less of an issue for Democrats. The U.N. post might not seem worthy of a convulsive battle in the minds of Democrats -- particularly when he could serve out the next two years as a recess appointment. Backed by Negroponte, the White House is adamant against giving additional information to Biden and Dodd for a fishing expedition. That means that somehow two Democratic senators will have to be found to vote for cloture without satisfying Dodd's demands for documents. That is not an automatic.

 The overriding point is that warmth generated by last week's deal did not extend to giving John Bolton an immediate up-or-down vote without going into Dodd's dubious complaints. For all of Sen. Robert Byrd's treacle about the Republic being saved, Thursday night's behavior was in the tradition of the reactionary body that blocked civil rights legislation for a century. Even if Bolton is confirmed, nobody knows now the fate of George W. Bush's other judicial nominees and his future selections for the Supreme Court.