"We are not on some fishing expedition here at all to derail the Bolton nomination," Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, with his customary half-smile in place, told the Senate Thursday afternoon. But that is exactly what the crafty Connecticut Democrat is doing -- with success so far. He has maneuvered John R. Bolton's confirmation to be U.N. ambassador into desperate straits.

Dodd's unreported speech to an empty Senate before it adjourned for another long weekend was classic senatorial misdirection. He held out the prospect of ending the filibuster against Bolton and quickly confirming him, if only more information were given Democratic senators. Yet, in the same speech, he reiterated his unequivocal opposition to the conservative Bolton, not discussing competence or ideology but personality.

All this is a charade. Opposition to Bolton has become a party matter, on which his possible Democratic supporters have been brought to heel. The cloture vote to end the filibuster scheduled for 6 tonight is unlikely to collect the necessary 60 votes. That effectively would end the confirmation struggle. President Bush then would face the dilemma of either sending Bolton to the United Nations on a recess appointment that will be reviled by Democrats as extraconstitutional, or accepting defeat.

This outcome hardly seemed possible two months ago, when Dodd, long seeking improved relations with Fidel Castro's Cuban dictatorship, renewed an old complaint about Bolton's disclosure, as undersecretary of state, of Castro's bioweapons development. Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, who seldom shuns a confirmation fight, eagerly joined Dodd.

Not much has been said lately about Cuba or Bolton's conservative outlook, neither of which is good grounds for denying confirmation. Dodd still complains that Bolton is hard on subordinates -- "Mr. Bolton was a very driven individual when he sought to get his way with underlings," the senator said Thursday.

Seeking a way to justify preconceived opposition, Dodd and Biden seized on the executive branch's refusal to give the Senate what it wanted. The issue, so obscure it is difficult for the non-senatorial mind to grasp, goes to Bolton's having requested intelligence intercepts. Dodd demands the names of U.S. officials listed there whom Bolton might have intimidated.

Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts (R), the intelligence committee chairman, reviewed the intercepts and reported to Dodd that they were "vanilla" and did not affect the confirmation fight. Roberts originally thought his Democratic vice chairman, West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller, agreed. But that was before Democratic leaders got hold of Rockefeller and turned him around.

Roberts, trying to settle the matter Wednesday, reported that seven officials whose names were raised by Dodd were not in the intelligence intercepts. In his Thursday response, Chris Dodd again showed himself one of the Senate's fiercest partisans, behind a smiling face. He criticized Roberts for revealing five of the names (though they were drawn from public statements by Democrats), and then demanded that the intercepts be made available to search for 36 officials.

This baffling process becomes intelligible only when it is understood that Dodd and Biden want to hold the Democrats together on grounds of senatorial prerogative in demanding information. Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, a Democrat who often removes the veils from his party's strategy, conceded that this trumped-up issue unified the caucus just as it had in opposing Miguel Estrada's failed judicial nomination. Last week, Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democratic freshman from Arkansas who cannot decide whether he wants to be an independent moderate or a party stalwart, used the claimed denial of documents to justify withdrawing his previous support for cloture.

Biden sat down with Bolton for an hour and a half Thursday, trying to work out the demand for access to intelligence. They noted that they both went through this dispute in 1986 when William Rehnquist was nominated for chief justice. It was thought then that Rehnquist might not be confirmed until Biden and Bolton, then an assistant attorney general, worked out a compromise on release of documents.

Dodd walked in for the final 20 minutes of last Thursday's negotiations, but how much he is interested in solving the intelligence disclosure problem is questionable. From the first, his priority was keeping Bolton out of Turtle Bay. Dodd will lose if he now must give up the charade of protecting Senate prerogatives.

(c)Creators Syndicate Inc.