WASHINGTON – The White House has vowed to plow ahead in its efforts to get John R. Bolton approved as the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations despite an unexpected setback and a charge by the Senate minority leader that Bolton is a "damaged piece of goods."
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday suddenly postponed its vote on recommending Bolton to the full Senate after White House pressure was coupled with a bitterly contentious meeting in which Democrats and three Republicans expressed reservations about the nominee.
"Obviously we were expecting Bolton" to clear the committee, Dan Bartlett, counselor to President Bush, told FOX News on Wednesday. "We're still very hopeful that will take place."
"The types of accusations raised by Democrats are ones that have been answered over and over and over, and they'll be answered again," Bartlett added. "We think Bolton will be the right man for the job."
The White House had frantically urged Republicans not to press ahead with a stymied vote Tuesday, perceiving a deadlocked 9-9 vote on Bolton's fate as a clear defeat, sources told FOX News. The preferred backup plan: Accepting Democratic requests to further scrutinize Bolton's dealings with subordinates.
The committee will not have another meeting on Bolton's nomination until early May.
Tuesday's meeting came to a surprising halt when Sen. George Voinovich (search), R-Ohio, suggested he wasn't "comfortable" voting for Bolton in light of new allegations that some members said they hadn't had time to investigate.
"I've heard enough today that I don't feel comfortable voting for Mr. Bolton. I think one's interpersonal skills and their relationships with their fellow man is a very important ingredient [in] anyone that works for me," Voinovich said.
Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., who along with Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., had earlier said he was inclined to support Bolton unless any significant "disqualifying" evidence surfaced, then asked Chairman Richard Lugar if he might reconsider holding the committee vote.
Lugar, of Indiana, suggested he wanted to move ahead with the vote anyway, but Hagel later added his voice to the pitch, saying he suspected if the committee moved ahead to a vote, "the Bolton nomination will not come out of this committee."
Lugar ultimately asked for unanimous consent that the chair set a date after the upcoming April recess for members to return and vote on the nomination of Bolton.
"We'll all have to trust each other," Lugar said in sealing the unanimous agreement.
On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada praised the committee, which he said "did the right thing" by postponing the vote. He added that Bolton will need to "reconstruct" himself in order to win members' support.
"The committee did the right thing yesterday. We begged and pleaded with the leadership to give us more time on this. It's an important post — our ambassador to the United Nations," Reid said. "Whether or not [Bolton] can reconstruct himself at that hearing, time will tell, but it will take some reconstruction because right now he's a damaged piece of goods."
Bartlett, however, said not to count Voinovich as a "no" vote just yet.
"We believe that once we're able to give [Voinovich] the information on the allegations that have been thrown at John Bolton, that he'll see what President Bush knows — that John Bolton is the right man for the job," he said.
Traveling abroad, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice added that Bolton still has her support.
"I continue to believe John Bolton would be a really outstanding U.N. permanent representative, so we'll continue to make the case that it ought to be done as soon as possible," she said.
"There is a deliberative process for the Senate and obviously it's in order that they go through it. But we need a permanent representative to the United Nations and we are at this point without someone who can engage in what is an intensifying debate on U.N. reform. But we need someone who can get there and do it."
Bolton is a harsh critic of the United Nations (search) bureaucracy and has been accused of mistreating underlings with whom he disagrees and preventing the flow of intelligence that contradicts his point of view.
Democrats have also called for a private meeting to review allegations that 11 years ago, while he was an attorney in the private sector, Bolton bitterly and publicly harangued a subcontractor who was working for the U.S. Agency for International Development (search).
White House spokesman Scott McClellan on Wednesday said Democrats are throwing out "unfounded accusations."
"We believe they are unfounded, they are unsubstantiated ... Democrats continue to bring these up, to trump them up," McClellan said. "We need to get John Bolton to the U.N."
"Obviously the Democrats and other anti-Bush critics ... are trying desperately to attack any of President Bush's nominees," Bartlett added, saying the administration will get the proper information to the committee that it needs to pass Bolton through to the full Senate.
The United Nations is going through major reforms right now, Bartlett said, adding, "He's the right voice, the right man with the right experience to help usher the U.N. through these reforms."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., told reporters Wednesday afternoon that he is still a potential "yes" vote on Bolton's nomination. Lieberman is not on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"I'm still undecided," he said during a press conference on the so-called "nuclear option," a rule change Republicans are considering that would ensure judicial nominees get an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor.
"My [obligation] is to give the benefit of the doubt to the president's nominees ... [these] nominees may or may not be who I might select ... obviously I disagree with him on some positions he's taken ... [but] he intends to reform and not destroy [the U.N.] ... I'm watching and listening ... and I remain undecided."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., noted that Bolton has been confirmed four times by the Senate for different positions and that, "it's not as if this is a new person in town."
"I know that when nominations get dragged out and when allegations come in, whether they're substantiated or not -- and they're generally not -- then it slows the process and a certain weariness sets in," said McCain, who also does not sit on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I don't believe that Mr. Bolton deserves that. I believe he deserves an up or down vote."
Republicans hold a 10-8 majority on the panel, and Lugar had sounded confident early in the session that he had the votes to prevail.
If Voinovich opposed Bolton, the committee would have deadlocked 9-9 and the nomination would have failed. While Bolton's nomination is not dead, the deadlock leaves his fate very much in doubt.
Hagel said that even if he does support Bolton in the committee, "that doesn't mean I will support his nomination on the floor. I think these charges are serious enough they demand — they cry out — for further examination."
After the committee meeting ended, Chafee told FOX News that Republican support for Bolton "is eroding."
Martin Frost (search), a former Democratic representative from Texas and current FOX News contributor, said it's hard to tell whether the Bolton nomination is actually on hold or if it has in fact been derailed.
Usually the president gets whatever nominee he wants approved, especially when his party is in the majority, Frost noted.
"This is very unusual," he said, adding that if the Republicans lose the vote of one of their own, "things could get very dicey for them."
Frost said he sees no problem with Democrats taking more time to look into the allegations against Bolton.
"We want to make sure we have the right person on the job, and I think it's important the Senate take the time to make sure we have the right person representing our country," he said.
But Republican strategist Ed Rollins (search) said that allegations are nothing more than an attempt to smear the White House.
"Democrats see an opportunity, I think, to embarrass the president, but at the end of the day, after another day or two of hearings, he's going to be confirmed," Rollins said.
FOX News' Major Garrett and Liza Porteus contributed to this report.