Political lessons from a senator under pressure
Even when there is serious business in Washington, sometimes I get more interested in the politics and gamesmanship than the important results of the decisions our representatives are making on our behalf.
Take, for instance, the question of whether or not the US Senate will approve President Bush’s nominee to be ambassador to the United Nations. You remember that most of the President’s appointments to important offices require the ‘advice and consent’ of the Senate.
Last week’s proceedings in the Senate’s committee on foreign affairs gave us an opportunity to watch one of the most intriguing political games being played. It is the game of loyalty versus conscience.
Here how the story developed for us: When President Bush nominated John Bolton to be UN ambassador, a lot of insiders were surprised. Bolton, a bright and experienced government official, has a reputation as a UN-basher. Some Democrats in the Senate indicated that they would oppose his nomination on this basis alone. But Republicans have a majority in the Senate, and some other Democrats believe that the President should have the right to select the people who will be working for him.
The President and the Republican Senate leadership pushed for a rapid and positive decision on the Bolton nomination. The first step in gaining the Senate’s approval of a nomination as an ambassador is a positive recommendation from the Senate’s foreign relations committee. When the committee, made up of ten Republicans and eight Democrats, met last week it appeared that Bolton would get all ten Republican votes ‘— enough for committee approval even if all the Democrats voted against him.
Before the planned vote, some Democratic committee members discussed allegations that Bolton used improper pressure to try to force intelligence officers to change their conclusions. There was more. Some people reported that he was otherwise highhanded and undiplomatic in his dealings with co-workers and colleagues ‘— not the skilled diplomat who would be an ideal ambassador.
The interesting political show began as foreign relations committee chair Richard Lugar tried to bring the Bolton nomination to a vote ‘— confident that he had the votes lined up for approval, even though several Republican senators were unhappy with the President’s choice. His plan was derailed when Republican senator George Voinovich announced that he could not vote for Bolton until some of the reports about him could be resolved.
Now the pressure is on Voinovich. Like other Republican senators, he wants to support his ‘Republican team.’ The stronger the President is, and the stronger the Republican majority in the Senate is, the stronger Voinovich, as a member of the ‘team,’ will be.
on the President’s proposals and on the direction set by the Senate’s Republican leaders.
There is another reason he must be reluctant to break with his leaders. When he does, he has to pay a price. A bill that is important to him might get sidetracked. Or he may find that he will not get the Senate leadership positions that good ‘team players’ can count on.
When he asserts his independence from the team, he risks losing his status on the team.
But, as Voinovich showed us last week, there is a limit to how far that pressure to conform can go.
At some point, the elected representatives’ individual judgments have to be their guides.
Watching legislators balance their own judgments and consciences against their responsibilities to their leaders and their ‘teams’ is one of the most interesting parts of politics for me.
So, for the next few weeks, I will have my eye on Senator George Voinovich.