The 5-Minute Briefing: The John Bolton imbroglio

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Indy Politics

Why hasn't Bolton been confirmed as US Ambassador to the UN?

Senate Democrats are staging an undeclared filibuster against him. Republicans have twice tried unsuccessfully to muster the 60 votes needed to cut off debate, and allow a straight confirmation vote which they would almost certainly win. The official reason is that the White House and State Department have refused to provide information which Democrats have requested on nominees. But the opposition party also sees a chance to deal a severe embarrassment to President Bush, at little cost to themselves. Many Republicans would have preferred another nominee. At least four have expressed unease at the prospect of the tart-tongued Mr Bolton representing the US at the UN, at a time when Washington needs all the friends it can get.

How damaging is the row to Mr Bush?

Very. No President has lost a confirmation battle for a top national security appointee since 1989, when the Senate rejected John Tower, picked by Mr Bush's father to be the Defence Secretary. The Bolton affair is a sign of how far and how fast this President's stock has fallen since his re-election, barely eight months ago. From Iraq to domestic social security and tax reform, everything seems to be going wrong for the administration.

So what happens now?

Mr Bush has three choices, none appealing. The first option is to hand over the information. But this would look like an admission of weakness after the White House has dug in its heels for weeks on the issue.

Second, even more humiliating for a man who never admits a mistake, Mr Bush could pull the nomination (or more probably, have Mr Bolton save face by withdrawing his candidacy for "personal reasons").

Finally, he could make a "recess appointment". This would bypass the confirmation process by sending Mr Bolton to New York by fiat. He could do this when Congress takes a break for the 4 July holiday.

So what's the problem?

There are two. Mr Bolton's authority in his new job would be diminished from the outset, if he went there without the backing of Congress.

A recess appointment moreover would only run until the end of the current 109th Congress in January 2007. At that point, Mr Bush would either have to submit Mr Bolton again for confirmation, or find a new US ambassador to the UN.