President Bush refused to surrender the fight over John R. Bolton's nomination as ambassador to the United Nations yesterday, persuading the Senate GOP leader to soften an earlier statement that it might be futile to keep pressuring Democrats to buckle and allow an up-or-down vote.
While many Republicans are skeptical of Bush's strategy, the president and Senate Republicans plan to step up pressure on the same Democrats who recently helped broker a deal to end the filibustering of federal judicial nominees, in hopes that they can strike a similar deal on Bolton, White House and Senate aides said.
At day's end, Republican senators and White House officials said they are now prepared to push this strategy for several more weeks -- defying a widespread expectation earlier yesterday that the nomination was doomed unless Bush circumvented the Senate through an unusual "recess appointment."
Still, fissures within the GOP over how to proceed were made glaringly obvious by confusion over whether Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is interested in holding another vote. Before heading to lunch with Bush at the White House, Frist told the Associated Press that his role had "been exhausted" in negotiating with Democrats.
A few hours later, after Bush said he does not want to throw in the towel, Frist said, "We'll continue to work to get an up-or-down vote for John Bolton over the coming days, possibly weeks."
On Monday, Republicans were unable for the second time to garner the 60 votes needed to end debate and force a vote. Several Republicans said Bush should acknowledge that Democrats have succeeded in this phase of the contest and move to a new approach -- either using a recess appointment or turning to another nominee. "I see a danger in waiting," said Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), warning that Bush's broader agenda for the United Nations is imperiled. "We are missing an opportunity to get a running start on conversations about reform."
As in the fights over judicial nominees and Social Security, Bush has struck an unyielding stance on Bolton -- beginning with the decision to nominate an unabashedly conservative and confrontational figure. Critics say Bush's position reflects a stubborn streak that could jeopardize other parts of his second-term legislative agenda; White House aides say their strategy reflects a calculation that Bush can overcome partisan opposition with patience and political muscle.
Two administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Vice President Cheney has made Bolton's nomination a personal priority and lobbied Bush to keep fighting for an up-or-down vote.
Several Republicans who had lunch with Bush yesterday said they did not see a way out of the Bolton standoff, short of a recess appointment or a White House about-face on turning over classified national security materials that Democrats are demanding.
Democrats, who over the course of the debate have changed their reasons for opposing Bolton, are demanding documents related to Bolton's tenure at the State Department, where his blunt style and hawkish views stirred resentment. Specifically, they want to see classified national security intercepts to discern whether Bolton was seeking secret information on rivals in the intelligence and foreign policy establishment, as well as additional material related to Syria.
Bush, however, has told aides the White House has met most of the Democratic demands and has no plans to turn over classified materials. Despite prodding from some Republicans, Bush is reluctant to appoint Bolton to a term that would expire at the end of this Congress, in January 2007.
The interim appointment would not only be controversial but would also make it difficult for Bolton to carry out the changes Bush envisions, said Republicans who have discussed strategy with the White House. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who organized the lunch, said Bolton himself probably opposes a recess appointment because it would tie his hands. "Clearly that's not the next way to go into office," Kyl said. Bush is also convinced that Democrats want to force a recess appointment, which would allow them to declare victory and send a wounded nominee to the United Nations. A GOP official said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) sent word to the White House that Bush should use the recess appointment as a way to end the matter. But a top Reid aide said the minority leader, through a "person with the ear of the White House," said the option was one of three possibilities, including finding a new consensus candidate. "That's out of the question," a top White House aide said.
"This is ridiculous," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). "We need an ambassador; the president has the right to chose a person who will support his policies and Bolton is a tough . . . but good pick."
Yet some White House aides acknowledged privately that Bush has no alternative strategy other than to work to convince at least a handful of moderate Democrats that Bolton is right for the job. Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, said there's "absolutely no chance whatsoever" that any Democrats will shift their positions unless Bush capitulates.
The president touched on several other issues at the Republicans-only lunch, including Social Security. Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) said Bush encouraged him to introduce legislation that does not include the president's trademark personal accounts. "The president is on top of this and is fully aware of what we are doing and is encouraging me to go forward," Bennett told reporters. He said Bush likes his idea of focusing on Social Security's financial problems first. The White House said Bush's support for private accounts has not softened.
Staff writer Dafna Linzer contributed to this report.