The White House signaled yesterday that President Bush is likely to circumvent the Senate and install John R. Bolton as U.N. ambassador without a confirmation vote, provoking anger among Democratic lawmakers even as they consider the president's Supreme Court nominee.
Bush will be free to use his recess appointment power as soon as Congress leaves town this weekend, and the White House has told allies to expect such a move, possibly before the president heads to Crawford, Tex., on Tuesday for his own summer break. A recess appointment would put Bolton at the United Nations until the next Congress convenes in January 2007.
If Bush goes forward, it would be the first time a president has sent an ambassador to the United Nations with a recess appointment, and it would be seen as a rare act of defiance of the Senate's role in confirmations. Senate Democrats argued that it would leave Bolton a politically weakened force in representing U.S. interests before the world body. It also would sour the environment as Bush woos some of the same Senate Democrats to support his choice for Supreme Court justice, John G. Roberts Jr.
But Bush has grown frustrated that Democrats have blocked Bolton since his nomination in March. The undersecretary of state for arms control in Bush's first term, Bolton has developed a reputation as one of the most influential conservatives in the administration, a favorite of Vice President Cheney and a vocal critic of the United Nations. Former colleagues testified during his confirmation hearings that he sometimes belittled them and ignored their advice on the use of intelligence.
While not officially announcing a recess appointment yesterday, White House press secretary Scott McClellan left little doubt at his briefing that Bush would make such a move, noting that Bolton was needed to push through changes at the world body. "It's a critical time to be moving forward on this," McClellan said. "The United Nations will be having their General Assembly meeting in September, and it's important that we get our permanent representative in place."
A senior Senate Republican leadership aide said the White House has indicated to its friends on Capitol Hill that Bush will use his recess power. "Democrats made it clear they will continue to block this," the aide said on the condition of anonymity because no announcement has been made. "The president believes in his nominee and will move forward."
Both the Associated Press and Reuters news agencies quoted unnamed senior administration officials last night saying that Bush will appoint Bolton next week.
Democrats called that a mistake. "Mr. Bolton will be viewed as damaged goods from the first day he enters the United Nations headquarters," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.). "He should not be given a recess appointment. The president should find another nominee who the Senate can support."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) cited the revelation that Bolton inaccurately told the Senate that he had not been interviewed in any investigations when, in fact, the State Department inspector general quizzed him about faulty intelligence involving Iraq. "It would be unconscionable for President Bush to go forward with the rumored recess appointment for Bolton in the wake of this dramatic new disclosure," Kennedy said.
The Bolton fight also foreshadows the emerging struggle over the Roberts nomination. In holding up Bolton's confirmation, Democrats have cited the administration's refusal to turn over certain documents they sought. Now they are ratcheting up their demands for documents relating to Roberts's past government service.
In a letter yesterday, Senate Democrats demanded memos written or signed by Roberts when he was deputy solicitor general under President George H.W. Bush on flashpoint social issues such as civil rights, abortion, school prayer and capital punishment. The White House has refused to release such files on the grounds of attorney-client privilege, arguing that disclosure would chill internal deliberations of government lawyers.
"Those documents will remain at the Department of Justice because they are privileged," White House spokesman Steve Schmidt said yesterday, noting that the administration has agreed to release tens of thousands of pages of documents from Roberts's earlier work in the Ronald Reagan administration.
The Democrats limited their request to internal memos and recommendations related to 16 cases, and emphasized that it was no random fishing expedition. "This is a modest request," said David Carle, spokesman for Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the Judiciary Committee's senior Democrat. "We could have asked for the moon, but we're not."
The 16 cases under scrutiny by the Democrats include Rust v. Sullivan, in which Roberts signed a brief urging the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the ruling that established a woman's constitutional right to abortion. Other cases dealt with voting rights and desegregation, prayer at public school graduations, appeal rights by death row inmates and legal recourses for citizens in environmental cases.
A coalition of liberal groups including People for the American Way and the Alliance for Justice launched television advertising yesterday demanding more documents. "We need the facts before the Senate votes to give John Roberts a lifetime appointment," the ad said.
The Democratic request, outlined in a letter to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, came as the White House formally submitted Roberts's nomination to the Senate. Leahy and Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) announced an agreement to open committee hearings Sept. 6, the day after Labor Day following the Senate's August recess. Specter said he would schedule a committee vote for Sept. 15, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said he would open floor debate by Sept. 26 in hopes of getting a final vote before the next Supreme Court term begins Oct. 3.
Staff writer Mike Allen contributed to this report.