John R. Bolton's nomination to be ambassador to the United Nations was the hottest issue in Congress a few months ago. But it has virtually evaporated this summer, eclipsed by speculation over a Supreme Court nominee and the fate of the president's top political adviser.
With neither the White House nor Senate Democrats showing any sign of yielding in their long-running dispute over documents related to Bolton's State Department work, speculation is rife that Bolton is prepared to accept a recess appointment good through the end of 2006, despite warnings from some GOP senators that it would weaken his influence and effectiveness.
Although the Senate has twice voted to sustain a filibuster against his nominee, President Bush has refused to surrender the fight over Bolton. "The president continues to believe that John Bolton should receive an up-or-down vote, and he encourages the Senate to move forward on his nomination," spokeswoman Erin Healy said yesterday.
But an administration source who is close to Bolton said that Bolton is prepared to accept a recess appointment next month unless the administration and Senate Democrats can resolve differences that have held up the confirmation for four months.
"He'll take the recess" appointment, said the administration source, who is familiar with Bolton's thinking. "The president has made his selection, and the president is asking the Senate to confirm the selection, and if the Senate refuses to do that, then most assuredly [Bush] will make a recess appointment."
The president is constitutionally empowered to fill vacancies when the Senate is in recess, and the appointments are effective through the final adjournment of the sitting Congress. The White House took no action during last week's Fourth of July break. The next recess, scheduled to last a month, starts July 30.
There is no indication that Bush has considered withdrawing the nomination and seeking another candidate.
Bolton, an outspoken conservative who had often criticized the United Nations, triggered controversy from the moment Bush nominated him March 8. State Department officials accused him of berating career officials and analysts who challenged his views, and of selectively choosing intelligence to support his assertions about the dangers posed by Cuba and other nations. When a Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. George V. Voinovich (Ohio), decided to oppose Bolton, the nomination moved to the full Senate with no recommendation.
Since then, the impasse has focused on Democrats' demands to see two sets of documents related to Bolton's State Department work. One involves national security intercepts of conversations. Democrats want to know whether Bolton was seeking secret information on rivals in the intelligence and foreign policy communities. The other documents involve Syria and questions of whether Bolton misled lawmakers about his role in compiling them.
"I haven't heard anything," Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), a central player in the dispute, said in an interview Monday. "I talked to the White House today on other matters, and it didn't come up."
Bolton -- who lost the title of undersecretary of state June 1 when his successor, Robert Joseph, was sworn in -- has spent the past four months in a transition suite at the State Department, and colleagues said he continues to ready himself for the ambassadorship.
Two months ago, while his confirmation was in trouble, Bolton began efforts to double the office space reserved within the State Department for the ambassador to the United Nations, according to three senior department officials who were involved in handling the request.
Previous ambassadors have kept a small staff in Washington in a modest suite. Bolton told several colleagues he needs more space and a larger staff in Washington because, if confirmed, he intends to spend more time here than his predecessors did.
"Bolton isn't going to sit in New York while policy gets made in Washington," the administration source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the source lacks authorization to discuss this on the record. But Bolton's efforts to obtain more space have encountered resistance. Two colleagues said Bolton's request was inappropriate because he had not been confirmed.