Bolton set for long battle on Senate floor

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The good news for President George W. Bush on Thursday was that the Senate foreign relations committee did not reject the nomination of John Bolton to be US ambassador to the United Nations.

The bad news was that the fight over the controversial nominee now moves to the Senate floor, where hesitation among some Republicans and energised Democratic opposition threaten to prolong an already long battle. The outcome there is anything but certain.

Mr Bush has stood by his choice for the UN, and Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said on Thursday the administration expected Mr Bolton to be confirmed. Amid continued criticism of the UN, Mr McClellan hinted at a strategy to be used as the nomination moves forward, saying work on UN reform had already started.

But the administration has other reasons to wish for a speedy resolution. The unusually tough debate on the diplomatic appointment comes as the Senate nears a showdown, as early as next week, on some of Mr Bush's controversial choices for the federal courts and as the president tries to overcome opposition to his proposal to reform Social Security, top of his second-term agenda.

In both of those fights, Mr Bush will need the support of moderates in his own party the same group that threatens to derail Mr Bolton. George Voinovich, the Ohio Republican on the Senate foreign relations committee who broke ranks to criticise Mr Bolton during yesterday's hearing, vowed to work against the nomination when it comes up for a vote. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, another Republican on the panel, said she had not decided whether to support Mr Bolton on the floor.

While the Republicans hold 55 seats in the Senate, such questions from committee Republicans could pave the way for more opposition when the Senate takes up the matter.

“If the committee had come out fully for him, it would be difficult for people who were on the fence to oppose him,” said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington. “This gives them some coverage for going against the nomination, and going against the president.”

Chuck Hagel and Lincoln Chafee, two other Republicans on the committee who had voiced hesitation about Mr Bolton, said yesterday they expected to vote for him. But Mr Voinovich said he thought the confirmation in doubt. “No one is really excited about him,” he said.

The debate on Mr Bolton has tested relations on the foreign relations committee, which is usually known for its bipartisan co-operation.

Joseph Biden, the top Democrat on the panel, complained angrily yesterday that the State Department had interfered with the role of Congress when it withheld information on Mr Bolton that Democrats had requested. “As my mother used to say, ‘Who died and left them boss?' ”

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