The hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the nomination of John Bolton to be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations got off to an odd start today -- and not just because this is the third time Bolton has gone before the senators seeking confirmation to the post.
This time around it is a confirmation hearing for a man who for almost a year has held the job for which he is being nominated; when the process stalled last year because of Democrats' opposition, President Bush installed Bolton in the position with a recess appointment that runs out at the end of the 109th Congress, most likely next January.
It was the change of heart of George Voinovich, R-Ohio, who gave a tearful speech on the Senate floor last year opposing Bolton, that led Republicans to try to shoot Bolton through the confirmation process again. Not only did Voinovich become a supporter, but since announcing his new opinion last week, Voinovich's office has dispatched press releases lauding Bolton and even urging his confirmation.
Remember, however, that Voinovich is only one vote and Republicans need to pick up five more to overcome a filibuster.
The weirdness of the hearing only intensified with the multiple protesters and indoor rain storm that beset it after the opening gavel. For all that, no Democrats on the committee seemed won over by Bolton's performance at the United Nations since his recess appointment.
Oddest at the hearing, in almost biblical style (at least as far as the muted world of Senate confirmation hearings), as Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., was beginning to question Bolton about U.S. policy toward Lebanon and Hezbollah, a cascading sheet of water fell from above, landing in the 10 feet directly between Bolton and his Senator inquisitors, separating the two sides.
There must be some allegory or omen or some hidden meaning to the waterfall. Perhaps something about discord between question and answer. Choose your own meaning for the indoor rainstorm. The serendipity of its timing and placement are too intriguing for coincidence.
After a quick pause for Capitol Hill Police to bring in trash cans to catch the water, even as the indoor rainstorm continued to fall, the questioning continued. There are no rain delays in the United States Senate.
It did not take long for the deluge to reach the Senators' dais, where it pelted Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., just as he was beginning his questioning. He had to switch seats before starting in on his interrogation about Bolton's thoughts on sending a peacekeeping force to Darfur and why the United States takes so long to pay its annual dues to the United Nations.
Bolton said it is the policy of the United States to pay its assessed U.N. dues, but the way the government budgets and accounts and dispenses its money can delay things is all.
But the weirdness did not stop there. Protesters interrupted the hearing two different times with women rising to "object as citizens of the District of Columbia without representation in the Congress or on the Committee" to Bolton's nomination. They were dragged from the room by police.
As this third go-around for Bolton's nomination progresses, look for Republicans to argue that with so much going on in the world, it would be unhealthy for Democrats to block Bolton's nomination. Democrats have not yet said whether they will again filibuster Bolton. He has gained more than 50 votes twice on the Senate floor (60 are needed to beat a filibuster).
Democrats argue that the same issues that led them to filibuster his nomination last year still exist. And they say that Bolton has done nothing at the U.N. to change their minds. At hearings last year, former State Department employees who worked for Bolton when he was an Assistant Secretary of State, accused Bolton of being a harsh manager and trying to have career government employees fired when their opinions on policy differed with the administration's.
The Bush administration also repeatedly declined to allow senators to review classified documents that Bolton had requested -- some said he requested identities of people referenced in the classified documents for retribution. Bolton has said he requested the identities of people to better understand the context of the documents.
So it seems the Bolton nomination redux will hinge on what happened before. But the focus of today's hearing was what Bolton has done as ambassador to the U.N., the job he was never confirmed to perform.
For instance, what John Kerry calls a failure in a North Korea resolution because it lacks sanctions, Bolton and the Republicans say is a success because they interpret that it could lead to sanctions, even though they are not spelled out in the resolution. Democrats also accused Bolton of failing to kickstart enough reform. They want President Bush to nominate another, more unifying candidate for the post.
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., told Bolton that he remains opposed to the nomination: "Nothing you have said or done in the past year at the U.N. has demonstrated anything different."
The questions from Voinovich were not particularly interesting. He referred people to his Washington Post op-ed to learn why he changed his mind and said to senators who oppose Bolton, "I suggest they pick up the phone and talk to his colleagues."
Norm Coleman, R-Minn., asked Bolton if there was anything that had surprised him or changed his mind about the U.N., an organization about which Bolton has been notoriously skeptical. Bolton responded with a resigned, "Not really."
Coleman also summed up a Republican argument for confirming Bolton: It would be unwise to switch ambassadors with all the stuff going on in the world. "Continuity."
Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., called that approach a symptom of a "weak and subservient senate." She said it "sends a message to the administration: 'Pick who you want and then come back and argue continuity.'"
The most contentious moments came between Kerry and Bolton, when the two argued over U.S. policy toward North Korea and the U.N. resolution that demands North Korea cease its nuclear program, but does not utilize sanctions laid out in Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., pointed to the problems in North Korea, Iran, Iraq, the Middle East and asked Bolton, "Why should we trust you to succeed in the future as we enter the perfect storm?"
In his defense, Bolton pointed to the disputed North Korea resolution, which is the first Security Council resolution directed at North Korea since 1993.
Bolton took questions from several Democrats on Darfur and the notion of a U.N. peacekeeping force there. Apparently Bolton did not attend a U.N. fact-finding trip June 4-10 of this year that was attended by the ambassadors of other members of the security council. Bolton told Feingold that he did not attend because of "personal reasons." He was giving a speech in London on June 8.