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Senate Returns to Action

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The Senate returned to work today after a weeklong recess. The first items on the agenda: the nominations of Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor to the federal appeals court. Later in the week senators are likely to return to the nomination of John Bolton to be UN ambassador. Democrats blocked a vote on Bolton just before the break. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

The Senate's constitutional responsibility to provide advice and consent regarding presidential nominations will be in full view once again this week. The nomination of Brown and Pryor were covered by the deal the Senate gang of 14 reached last month, guaranteeing them up-or-down votes. Bolton's fate later this week is not so clear. Up to now Democrats blocked Bolton's nomination, demanding to see National Security Agency intercepts, documents that Bolton handled, and other papers relating to Syria. At a news conference last week, President Bush called the demand, quote, "stall tactics." But Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said today it's the president who is blocking Bolton's nomination, not Democrats.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Minority Leader): Here is a man that's going to represent us at the United Nations. Does it seem out of line that we should make a determination as to whether or not he told the truth in his confirmation hearings? Does it seem out of line that we should ask for information dealing with a man who handled the arms control negotiations, dealings, with other countries--that he was unfair and misled other countries? We're asking for basic information. The president should come forward with this.

NAYLOR: Democrats have had an important ally in their opposition to Bolton, Ohio Republican George Voinovich. Voinovich delayed the vote on Bolton in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has said Bolton, whose reputation is that of a firebrand, is the wrong person for a sensitive diplomatic post. Voinovich says Democrats are justified in seeking more information.

Senator GEORGE VOINOVICH (Republican, Ohio): They feel that there's a legitimate reason to get this information about those intercepts. And I don't, you know--I mean, I respect them for the position that they're taking. I think that it's controversial about whether or not what they're asking for is really needed, but they have a right to do that.

NAYLOR: While the battle over the Bolton nomination may seem to some to be a dispute over obscure documents and diplomatic temperament, many Republicans don't see it that way. Virginia Senator George Allen says the real issue should be reforming the United Nations, not John Bolton's personality. Yet political science Professor John Pitney of Claremont McKenna College says the fight is about more than Bolton or the UN.

Professor JOHN PITNEY (Claremont McKenna College): It's a proxy war. Democrats have a lot of dissatisfaction about Bush administration foreign policy, so it's a way to register their discontent with that foreign policy. And from an institutional standpoint, a lot of Democrats are unhappy with the Bush administration's policies toward government information. They don't believe the Bush administration has been forthcoming with government information, either with the public or with Congress.

NAYLOR: The Bolton nomination illustrates some other issues as well, the first being it's difficult to be Senate majority leader and run for president at the same time. Bill Frist, the majority leader said to be considering a presidential bid, was criticized for calling for a vote on Bolton before the break without enough firm support in hand. It was the end of a bad week for Frist, who saw a potential rival for the GOP nomination, Arizona's Senator John McCain, reap the lion's share of credit for the judicial filibuster deal.

For the White House, the stakes in the Bolton battle are also about more than potentially losing a nomination fight. By refusing to turn over documents to Congress, John Pitney says Mr. Bush is attempting to restore some of the power of the presidency.

Prof. PITNEY: The Bush administration has been very assertive in pressing executive prerogatives. They saw that the presidency had lost some of its institutional standing during the 1990s, and they're working very aggressively to rebuild it.

NAYLOR: And there's another important consideration. President Bush has already had trouble winning support for his plan to overhaul Social Security and for some of his judicial nominees. Fighting and winning a battle over Bolton could help shield him a bit longer from the inevitable label of `lame duck.' Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.