THE BITTERLY contentious nomination of John Bolton to be UN ambassador comes to a showdown this holiday weekend.
With the Senate having twice refused to break a filibuster over Bolton, President Bush may use his power to make a recess appointment during Congress's Fourth of July break. Bolton would then serve without Senate confirmation until the next Congress ends, in late 2006.
Or Bush could withdraw Bolton's name.
Bolton's views on the UN are hostile. He is known as a short-tempered martinet. He got poor reviews for his last job as undersecretary of state for arms control. For instance, Bolton was a skeptic of a US joint program to keep Russian nuclear fuel from reaching terrorists. The effort was tied up in legal minutiae during Bolton's tenure, but soon after Bolton's departure early in 2005, the logjam was broken and agreement with Russia reached.
More ominously, Bolton is suspected of using ultra-secret National Security Agency wiretaps to snoop on rivals in the intelligence and defense community. Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee led by Senator Joe Biden of Delaware demanded to know the names of people on whom Bolton requested wiretapped information. For anything but legitimate national security purposes, this use would violate US law. But the White House has stonewalled this request, intensifying Democrats' opposition.
As the Senate debated Bolton, Senator Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, declared that a recess appointment ''would weaken not only Mr. Bolton but also the United States," but he soon recanted, very likely after some prodding. His first impulse was right. This recess appointment would insult both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, and the institution itself.
Bolton would be serving for less than 18 months. He would not be taken seriously by other diplomats. The House recently passed a resolution withholding half the US dues contribution to the UN, pending reforms. Even the Bush administration opposes this heavy-handed ploy. Given Bolton's own extreme views and volcanic temperament, he is about the last person to negotiate the delicate domestic and international politics of shoring up the UN.
Bolton dearly wanted to be deputy secretary of state. But Condoleezza Rice, who has appointed diplomatic professionals to all the senior posts at State, made sure that would not happen. One well-placed source suggests that Bolton had to be talked into taking the UN job, presumably by Vice President Cheney, his close ideological ally. Bolton would be the last neocon in a senior post.
Bush's behavior suggests that Bolton himself might not want to take the job under a cloud. After the Senate GOP leader, Bill Frist, declared that he lacked the votes to break a filibuster, Bush summoned Frist to the White House and told him to try again.
In a humiliation for Frist, the Republican leadership on June 21 mustered only 54 votes, three fewer than on the first attempt and six less than required, with George Voinovich of Ohio voting no. Some observers ask: Why would Bush make this desperation move if the White House and Bolton were willing to use a recess appointment all along? But Bush may plow ahead anyway.
It is ironic that Bush may run roughshod over the legislature, on the very holiday that celebrates our liberty, and at a time when we are urging fledging democracies to protect minority rights.
The Constitution provided the recess appointment prerogative mainly for emergencies before there were year-round sessions of Congress, when senators traveled to Washington by horse and buggy. In modern times, recess appointments are infrequent, usually made when Congress is out of session, almost never over a short holiday break.
This nomination can't win Senate approval because of Bolton's own extremism. It is the latest case of Bush overreaching in his second term.
Like the faltering Social Security initiative, another emblematic Bush overreach, the Bolton nomination also produced rare Democratic discipline and unity. It stimulated a lot of citizen activism, including a campaign by 102 former senior diplomats opposed to Bolton, mostly appointees of Republicans Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush I.
John Bolton is damaged goods. If he does take the UN job without the Senate's blessing, Bush's victory will be Pyrrhic.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.