WASHINGTON - Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee are poised today to render their long-awaited verdict on President Bush's embattled pick to be ambassador to the United Nations, voting on whether to keep alive John R. Bolton's stalled nomination in an important test of the president's second-term power.
Weeks after Bush planned to have in place his chosen U.N. envoy, Bolton - demonized by critics as a hot-tempered bully at best and a manipulator of intelligence at worst - still faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, with at least two Republicans saying they remained undecided yesterday on whether to support him.
Bush's bid to win approval for Bolton picked up an important backer this week when Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a Rhode Island Republican on the panel who had voiced concerns about the arms control official's past conduct, said he would support Bolton unless he found evidence he had committed a crime or "ethical errors."
"In some areas, I give strong leeway to the executive power - this is one of them," Chafee said Tuesday. "You win the election, you get to pick your team."
Other Republicans were wavering yesterday, with an aide to Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska saying he would wait until today's session to decide whether to support Bolton and Sen. George V. Voinovich of Ohio still weighing his decision.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, predicts that Bolton will win party-line approval in the panel, which is divided 10-8 in the Republicans' favor. That would send his nomination to the full Senate, where he would probably draw enough support to be confirmed.
Still, the drawn-out fight over Bolton's selection has undercut Bush at a time when he is counting on support from Capitol Hill, and pointed up the limits of his power to sway the Republican-led Congress.
A five-hour show-trial of sorts in the normally courtly Foreign Relations panel is planned for today, with Republicans and Democrats each arguing the merits of the nomination.
Bush, who says Bolton's straightforwardness and distaste for the status quo at the United Nations is just what the institution needs, said Bolton will prevail.
"We believe he will be confirmed," Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said yesterday. "We want to see him at the United Nations so he can get about doing the important work of reform. John Bolton is exactly the kind of person we need at the United Nations."
Democrats have led the effort to discredit Bolton, buoyed by the maverick Republicans who have expressed skepticism about him. They promise to do what they can to defeat the Baltimore native, whose aggressive style won him harsh critics among some Bush administration intelligence and foreign policy officials.
"What the Democrats are focused on is winning the vote in the committee, and if we don't, winning the vote on the floor," said Sen. Barbara Boxer of California.
Boxer denied that Democrats were using the Bolton nomination to prove they could rein in Bush. But she said the president, in refusing to withdraw Bolton in the face of widespread skepticism about his suitability for the post, was testing his own limits.
"This is quite typical of this president, I think, to dig his heels in and demand everybody walk the line," Boxer said. "If they walk the line," she added, referring to the Republicans who have voiced concern about Bolton, "they have to answer for it."
The fight over Bolton might not have started as a broader standoff over Bush's prerogatives, but in the weeks since his March 17 nomination, as testimony has piled up documenting his brash management style and testy interactions with colleagues, it has taken on new significance, lawmakers said.
Republican waverers might be flashing their independent streaks in efforts to remind Bush that they are not rubber-stamps for his agenda, Chafee said.
"It's risen to the point and evolved as a symbolic vote," Chafee said. His ambivalence, along with that of Hagel and Voinovich, helped prod Lugar last month to postpone a vote on Bolton's nomination, fearing he would not have the votes at that session to prevail.
Bolton's critics, Chafee said, "are going beyond the fact that it's an appointment for the United Nations. It's a slowing of any kind of second-term momentum."
The Bolton episode has been an unwelcome surprise to the White House at a time when the president had hoped to save political capital to push Bush's uphill legislative agenda, including efforts to overhaul Social Security, enact a new energy policy and revamp immigration rules.
Bush and his top advisers "never expected to get whacked as seriously as they did," said Paul C. Light, a specialist on government personnel who teaches public service at New York University. "It shows that the Bush vetting machine is still broken, that they are totally surprised by the problems they've had here."