(cross-posted at the Paper Tiger)
For top-notch political theater, you couldn’t beat the fireworks at yesterday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on controversial nominee for Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton.

If you haven’t been following this story, it’s hard to know where to start. Perhaps with Bolton’s past statements on the United Nations (he recommended eliminating the top 20 stories, for one). Or his remarkable timing during then Secretary of State Colin Powell’s sensitive negotiations with North Korea over their nuclear aspirations (Bolton called Dear Leader Kim Jong Il an evil dwarf, or words to that effect, which though there are many things one could say about an absolute dictator who favors pompadours, elevator shoes, fine cognac and kidnapping Japanese film directors while his subjects are eating bark, does not exactly illustrate a light diplomatic touch). Or the repeated allegations of his abusing subordinates, of his trying to fire CIA analysts who refuse to cook data to his specifications, his withholding of intelligence from superiors Powell and Rice. Perhaps my favorite tidbit is the story of Melody Townsel, a US AID worker (and staunch Republican) who provoked Bolton’s ire in Kyrgyzstan and claims: “When I was dispatching a letter to AID, my hell began. Mr. Bolton proceeded to chase me through the halls of a Russian hotel, throwing things at me, shoving threatening letters under my door, and genuinely behaving like a madman. I eventually retreated to my hotel room and stayed there. Mr. Bolton then routinely visited me to pound on the door and shout threats” (here’s a link to the Daily Kos diary that brought this story to the public’s attention).

But in spite of the fact that John Bolton appears to be a bullying, lying, stark-raving lunatic, as usual, Republicans in the Senate were lining up to support the choice of their Dear Leader, Bush the Second. I mean, why not? If they could confidentally vote in an obsequious toady indelibly linked with torturing people for Attorney General, why not John Bolton for United Nations ambassador?

Except that a few Republican Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee were said to be wavering: Chuck Hagel – who has on his staff one of the analysts supposedly threatened by Bolton, and Lincoln Chaffee, one of the last of that dying breed, the so-called moderate Republican. With the steady drip of allegations of less than seemly conduct by Mr. Bolton and rumors of much worse to come in the pipeline, committee Chairman Richard Lugar tried an unprecedented parliamentary maneuver – he moved to cut off debate and bring the Bolton nomination to an immediate vote on the Senate floor.

“Furious” does not adequately describe the reaction of the Senate Foreign Committee’s Democratic members. One observer likened Joe Biden to a wolverine. He was vicious, exposing his large white teeth in a rictus snarl that resembled a smile only in that the corners of his mouth were elevated above the midline. Biden called Bolton a liar. Christopher Dodd, armed with flow-charts, stated that Bolton should be indicted, should these allegations be proven true. John Kerry characterized Lugar’s maneuvering as “shocking,” and was, how to put it? Well, dignified, direct and sadly Presidential. “Is the chairman saying it doesn’t matter what we know about John Bolton?” asked Kerry. “If you don’t know some of the allegations that have come across the transom then you are voting in the blind. Maybe you want to vote in the blind.”

With a 10 to 8 majority in the Committee, however, it looked as though Lugar would have his way, and the Bolton nomination would reach the Senate floor, where Democrats would have to find six Republican dissenters to block the nomination. And given that in recent years, Congressional Republicans seem to have had loyalty microchips implanted in their brains, finding six such rebels did not seem likely. Even Hagel, the Senator with the staffer Bolton abused, stated he would reluctantly vote to send on Bolton’s nomination if he had to vote now, but that he might not vote for Bolton in the full Senate vote. As for Chaffee, the supposedly “reasonable” moderate Republican, he just sat there, quivering and occasionally equivocating, middle-of-the-road roadkill.

And then, out of nowhere, Ohio Republican Sen. George Voinovich spoke up. He had not said a word up to this point and had not attended last week’s two day confirmation hearing. First he apologized for his absence. He’d had to attend to other duties. And then…

“I don’t feel comfortable voting today,” said Voinovich. Senator Dodd’s presentation had planted serious doubts in his mind about Bolton’s fitness for the job.

Take-down! Lugar, whose blinking over the unexpectedly ferocious Democratic resistance had already reached semaphoric speeds, was now twitching wildly as he watched his power play collapse.

Because that was that. A 9-9 tie would be essentially a rejection by the Senate Foreign Relations’ committee of the Bolton nomination. It could still reach the Senate floor,  but passage by the full Senate under such circumstances would be doubtful, with other Republican moderates now free to vote their residual consciences.

In the end, the Committee voted unanimously to delay the vote on Bolton for three weeks so that they could examine the allegations in detail and gather corroborating evidence.

Will Bolton tough it out? Develop a sudden “nanny problem?” Enroll in an anger management course? Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen!

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