A Defection on the GOP Side

By Dana Milbank
Friday, May 13, 2005

Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee heard yesterday that President Bush's choice to be ambassador to the United Nations was "arrogant" and "bullying." They heard that he "would have been fired had he worked for a major corporation." They heard that his confirmation "would send a contradictory and negative message to the world" and that "the United States can do better than John Bolton."

It sounded like more of the partisan attacks on Bolton that Democrats have delivered for the past two months -- except this time, the accuser was a fellow Republican, Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio.

Voinovich, a loyal party man, agreed to let Bolton's nomination continue without a committee recommendation to the floor of the Senate and likely confirmation. But Voinovich's sentiment -- and the mostly tepid defense of the nominee by Republicans at yesterday's hearing -- made it clear that the GOP was driven by deference to the president, not affection for the nominee.

"No one really is excited about him," Voinovich told a swarm of reporters in the hallway after announcing his opposition.

The first hint of trouble yesterday came when Richard Lugar (Ind.), the chairman, asked permission for Voinovich to speak second instead of Joseph R. Biden (Del.), the ranking Democrat. "I would prefer," the loquacious Biden replied, "if you're willing, after you speak, for me to be able to make my opening statement."

But Lugar insisted, and after Voinovich spoke ("Why in the world would you want to send somebody up to the U.N. that has to be supervised?"), Biden understood.

"I don't know why I thought for a moment that maybe Senator Voinovich shouldn't go second," the Democrat said to laughter.

Lugar, as shepherd of Bolton's nomination, was scarcely more helpful to the cause than Voinovich. The chairman's rap sheet said Bolton made "incorrect assumptions about the behavior and motivation of subordinates," failed "to use proper managerial channels" and "unnecessarily personalized internal disputes." On the positive side, Lugar continued, "there is no evidence that he has broken laws or engaged in serious ethical misconduct."

It was, perhaps, not the ideal slogan for confirmation: Bolton -- not a criminal. Only four days earlier, Lugar predicted that Bolton would be endorsed by the committee on a party-line vote. Yesterday, he was reduced to urging colleagues not to "reject Secretary Bolton without even granting him a vote on the Senate floor."

The difference, of course, was Voinovich, who challenged Bush and GOP leaders in a way few of his colleagues have dared. "What message are we sending to the world community?" he asked about Bolton. Though he said that "all things being equal" he would support a presidential nominee, "all things are not equal." Responding to a main White House argument, he added: "To those who say a vote against John Bolton is against reform of the U.N., I say, 'Nonsense.' " Lugar held a thin smile while Voinovich talked. Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), who took a political risk by backing Bolton, stared at his water glass and looked as if he were about to cry. Bolton defender Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) fidgeted in his chair; Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), another Bolton fan, smirked.

On the other side, Democrats whispered, chuckled and huddled, apparently plotting a new strategy. Biden was uncharacteristically at a loss for words. "Look, I don't -- quite frankly, much of what I was going to say would be redundant and not as eloquent as what we just heard."

Biden recovered enough to give a room-emptying, 51-minute speech, drawing laughter when he said, after 25 minutes, "Let me now turn to the nomination."

Democrats could not praise their newfound ally enough. "I want to tell my colleague from Ohio what a privilege it is to serve with him," said Sen. Christopher Dodd (Conn.). Voinovich smiled appreciatively when Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) observed: "Probably our saying something nice about him puts him in a difficult situation."

Most Republicans, abandoned by Voinovich, offered faint praise for the nominee. Chafee said he was "apprehensive" and "concerned" but would support Bolton anyway. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) allowed that Bolton had been "inflammatory" and has a habit of "pushing that envelope," but she said he had her vote.

Allen offered the most colorful Bolton defense, suggesting that diplomats should not be effete. "We are not electing Mr. Congeniality," he said. "We do not need Mr. Milquetoast in the United Nations. We're not electing Mr. Peepers to go there and just be really happy, and drinking tea with their pinkies up."

Reverting to his inevitable football talk, Allen acknowledged that the Voinovich move was a blow, but he seemed confident that Bolton would prevail on the floor. "After the last hearing we had, where we played for second down," Allen said, this time "we have moved the ball downfield."

Biden, with evident mockery, interjected: "We're looking for an onsides kick."

Allen replied: "We just got a first down. Haven't scored yet."

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