The Bush administration said yesterday that Democratic senators should not expect to get the documents they are seeking before they will allow an up-or-down vote on John R. Bolton, whom the president nominated to be ambassador to the United Nations.
“They have what they need,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. “The Democratic and Republican leaders of the Intelligence Committee have had access to this sensitive, highly classified information. The Democrats clamoring for it have already voted against the nomination. This is about partisan politics.”
But Democrats said it’s not about politics, or even about Mr. Bolton anymore. They said their filibuster is an attempt to protect the institution of the Senate against a strong and overreaching administration.
“This is the most secretive administration in recent history. This is an arrogant, out-of-touch administration that refuses to acknowledge that the Congress is a co-equal branch of government,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. “The vote last night demonstrates that a number of Democrats believe that Senator Biden and Senator Dodd have every right to ask for this information.”
The documents sought by Democratic Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut are e-mail messages and other background material for congressional testimony Mr. Bolton was to give in 2003 about Syria’s weapons programs and 10 foreign communications intercepts the nominee requested in his current role as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.
The two senators say the information, which they have been seeking for two months, could bolster their case that Mr. Bolton bullied intelligence analysts to try to influence their conclusions. Beyond that, they argue the Senate has a right to the information as a matter of principle in carrying out their duty to confirm nominees.
On Thursday, Democrats voted to block Mr. Bolton from an up-or-down vote, beginning the first filibuster of the new Congress. The Senate voted 56-42, four votes shy of the 60 votes needed to end debate and move to a majority vote.
Republicans said the requests for information are just a delay tactic.
The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee have seen redacted versions of the intercepts, and concluded nothing could be learned from allowing Mr. Biden to see censored versions.
Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican and the committee chairman, went further, saying that releasing the intercepts to anyone else would set a bad precedent for compromising some of the most sensitive intelligence.
Mr. Manley said he wouldn’t try to predict what would happen if the White House does not turn over the documents, saying Democrats would “take things one step at a time.”
President Bush has been fairly successful with nonjudicial nominees, though he did withdraw two Cabinet-level nominees — each time reacting to revelations of improprieties on the nominees’ part soon after the choices were announced.
The U.N. ambassador’s position has not traditionally been a big point of contention. Roll-call votes have been required on only one out of every four nominees to the position. The most negative votes anyone has received were cast against Richard Holbrooke, President Clinton’s third ambassador. He was confirmed 81-16.
Meanwhile Thursday night Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, raised another possible objection: She said she wants to see a list of clients of an outside consultant Mr. Bolton has employed in his current position.
But Mr. Biden said he doesn’t consider that to be critical, calling the Syria and intelligence intercepts the “drop-dead items.”
After the vote, Democrats made it clear that, while they may eventually have an up-or-down vote on Mr. Bolton, they don’t want him to succeed.
“Send us someone else,” Mrs. Boxer said.