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Published: Sunday, 4/24/2005

A profile in courage - or obstructionism?

WASHINGTON - Would you willingly work for a bully? A "kiss-up, kick-down" boss with a hair-trigger temper and a propensity for intimidation? Would you want your country to be represented by such a person, even a smart one backed by the President?

That's the dilemma for Republicans, as they ponder whether to be good team players and confirm President Bush's choice of John Bolton to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

The problem is that Mr. Bolton, one of the brightest stars in Mr. Bush's firmament of neoconservative thinkers, makes George Steinbrenner seem laid back. Mr. Bolton, say some former co-workers, can be a loud mouth, in-your-face jerk - not that we haven't seen that before in high-level government jobs.

This leads to a discussion of whether Sen. George Voinovich (R., Ohio) is a modern profile in courage or an obstructionist. Or both.

And it prompts a larger look at the role of dissent in Washington today.

A few days ago Mr. Voinovich suddenly struck his forehead with his hand during a meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and with a stricken look defied his President. He said a vote on Mr. Bolton's confirmation should be delayed to glean more information.

This forced courtly Richard Lugar (R., Ind.), chairman of the committee, to postpone the vote.

Since Mr. Voinovich asked for more time to consider Mr. Bolton's nomination, there has been a near-steady procession of people coming from behind closed doors with a ritualized litany about Mr. Bolton's relationship to underlings. He has tried to intimidate those who disagree, including intelligence analysts, and then said he didn't. Perhaps he tried to get a few dismissed. He yells. He pounds on doors. He glares. He does not, as they say, suffer ordinary mortals lightly.

Democrats, somewhat piously, have said it's not their disagreement with him on substantive issues - not even his long history of deriding, demeaning, and disdaining the United Nations - that give them pause. It's his "bullying."

But it was Mr. Voinovich who was the first Republican to sit up and insist that a more thorough investigation of Mr. Bolton is warranted.

Such a move is not done lightly. Mr. Bush was furious. Mr. Voinovich knows what is in store - White House pressure of the most intense kind.

Mr. Voinovich, who can be a maverick when he gets his hackles up, has been down this path before. He told the White House he would do whatever he could to block the President's efforts to make his tax cuts permanent, including voting against the entire budget, saying the nation can't afford ever-larger deficits. He also said the President is wrong to push for Social Security changes this year and has denounced some of the President's spending cuts as ill-advised.

As many Republicans have learned, this White House demands loyalty and has ways of making that understood. Mr. Voinovich's back better not itch, because the White House won't scratch it.

Why Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney decided on Mr. Bolton for the U.N. post is a puzzle. He is abrasive, he doesn't like diplomatic dancing, and he all but hates the bureaucratic culture of the United Nations. But having made the decision, they seem surprised that at the 11th hour some senators are refusing to rubberstamp Mr. Bolton and exercising their constitutional duty to probe his record.

Running on parallel tracks with the Bolton nomination is the effort by some Senate Republicans to change the rules and kill the filibuster as used to delay or even prevent votes on some of Mr. Bush's most controversial judicial nominees. Ending a filibuster requires 60 votes. That is proving difficult to get to permit votes on nominees thought by some senators to be too ideological.

But the Bob Doles and the John McCains of the party are warning that killing the filibuster could backfire on the GOP, because some day Democrats again might be in control. The filibuster is often a frustrating tactic, but it's a democratic tool that protects the minority. Also, more than 200 of Mr. Bush's judicial nominees have been confirmed, with fewer than a dozen sidetracked.

The world is watching to see what those proselytizers of democracy, Mr. Bush and the Republicans, do with the filibuster, or to it, and what happens to Mr. Bolton.

Mr. Voinovich was courageously correct - Mr. Bolton must be thoroughly vetted before a vote. And for the good of democracy, the filibuster should be retained. Mr. Bush understandably doesn't want to risk losing, but the game has to play out or everybody, including the bully, loses.



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