The White House was scrambling Tuesday night after the disastrous Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting held Tuesday afternoon to discuss voting out the U.N. ambassador nomination of John Bolton. Ultimately, Democrats prevailed, having the vote delayed for at least three weeks.
And the aftermath, says a Foreign Relations Committee staffer, is that committee chairman Richard Lugar on Wednesday morning broached the subject of pulling back the nomination with White House officials and the State Department.
"We don't have Voinovich, we don't have Hagel, and in the end we probably don't have Chafee if the other two give him cover," says a Senate leadership staffer. "I don't see how we bring that vote up. We're in for a bumpy ride."
"We're going to be seeing leaks for the next three weeks from Democrats on the committee and their various advocates just beating on Bolton at every turn," says the Foreign Relations Committee staffer. "We just don't have anything to combat it, and Lugar is furious that the White House is letting this happen without any vocal defense from administration people. They are making the chairman look weak and indecisive."
Lugar has been doing that pretty much on his own, without anyone's help, for the past month on the Bolton nomination. On Tuesday, Lugar sat stone-faced at the table, rarely attempting to push back against the Democratic onslaught on Bolton's character.
Lugar's inaction is in part due to his anger over Bolton's written responses, or lack there of, to questions submitted by Democrats. In some cases, according to the staffer, Bolton simply ignored the questions or wrote responses that did not address specific points the Democrats were seeking.
"Bolton was nonresponsive in some of those questions," says the staffer, who considers himself a moderate Republican. "When you're answering questions at a hearing, it's one thing to be able to duck an issue. But in writing, when you leave the answer space blank, it's pretty obvious where you are coming from."
Lugar has badly misplayed the Bolton nomination process, from initially voicing doubts about Bolton -- for which the White House took him to the woodshed -- to the Tuesday televised debacle that gave Democrats an opportunity to pound away on Bolton. Republican leadership staff was miffed that Lugar was apparently aware of the Democrats' ammunition against Bolton, but chose not to share it with them prior to the Tuesday committee meeting, this, after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist had cleared the decks for a committee vote.
"It isn't clear that any of the material the Democrats are throwing around has a lot of traction, but even if it doesn't the damage is done," says a Republican staffer on another Senate committee. "But if Foreign Relations Democratic staff is anything like mine, then Bolton probably can't survive three weeks of what surely will be daily leaks against his character. There has to be some push back, and Lugar and Hagel clearly aren't capable of doing that."
On Wednesday morning, White House congressional liaisons attempted to reach out to Ohio Republican Sen. George Voinovich, who had previously met with Bolton privately and had told White House and State Department handlers that he was supportive of the nomination. But Voinovich wouldn't make himself available, a bad sign.
If Bolton were to withdraw, it would be a terrible loss for the White House, not to mention conservatives. But even worse would be what such a loss might portend across the board for Republicans.
"On everything from Social Security to DeLay to Bolton, you get the sense that we're fraying at the seams, perhaps more than fraying," says a Republican lobbyist. "We knew the State Department was a snake pit. We knew it was full of Democrats ready to attack a conservative. Yet everyone seems surprised that this happened. You see the same kind of shell shocked look when you talk to a White House staffer about Social Security or immigration policy. This isn't good, and we need to fix it quick."