WASHINGTON—Condoleezza Rice moved closer to becoming the nation's first African-American female secretary of state on Wednesday, as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 16-2 to approve her to succeed Colin Powell.
Rice is virtually assured approval by the full Senate, but a handful of Democrats announced plans for debate that appeared likely to delay a vote that had been scheduled for Thursday, following President Bush's midday inauguration. Final Senate action could be postponed until next Tuesday.
Rice, 50, Bush's national security adviser and a former Stanford University provost, would become the nation's 66th secretary of state. She will be the second African American, after Powell, and the second woman, after Madeleine Albright, President Clinton's secretary of state, to hold the post.
Powell gave an emotional farewell speech to cheering department employees Wednesday morning, shortly before the Senate committee voted to approve Rice.
In more than 10 hours of hearings over two days, Rice laid out plans for an ambitious second-term Bush foreign policy.
She pledged to revive U.S. alliances overseas, focus on relations with other major powers, devote personal attention to Middle East peace and reform U.S. public diplomacy.
She also promised to fight for more resources for U.S. foreign policy despite tight federal budgets, continuing a rebuilding process begun by Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage.
Democrats on the panel, occasionally joined by several Republicans, used the hearings to register sharp objections to U.S. policy in Iraq and the Bush team's depiction of the threat from Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein before the war.
Several also criticized what they said was Rice's reluctance to admit mistakes and pugnacious attitude toward vexing nations such as Iran and Venezuela.
"I'm going to vote for you, but I must tell you it's with a little bit of frustration and some reservation," the panel's ranking Democrat, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, told Rice in one exchange.
"You sort of stuck to the party line, which seems pretty consistent: You're always right. You all never made any mistakes. You're never wrong. And it's almost like if I acknowledge any ... misjudgments on the part of me or the president or anyone in the team, it's a sign of weakness," Biden said.
Rice acknowledged problems with the post-war reconstruction effort in Iraq. "We didn't have the right skills, the right capacity to deal with a reconstruction effort of this kind," she said.
But she said history would render the ultimate judgment of Bush's decisions on Iraq.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., urged Rice to follow Powell's example and offer an independent voice within the administration.
"I would just urge you in your role as secretary of state to display some independence and make certain ... you are not engaging in simply agreement with the conventional wisdom inside the White House," Obama said.
Rice responded: "I have no difficulty telling the president exactly what I think. I've done that for four years."
Rice, who has been getting almost daily briefings at the State Department, easily fielded questions on virtually every world region and global topic, reflecting the vast and complex portfolio she'll assume.
Two Democrats—former presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.—voted against her nomination.
The handful of Democrats who plan to delay the Senate vote said they wanted more time to analyze the hearings, blocking Republicans' hopes to approve Bush's new Cabinet immediately after he begins a second term.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said he and others "have asked the Senate leaders to give the Senate a few days to analyze Dr. Rice's testimony and consider it fully before casting a vote for or against her confirmation as secretary of state."
Senate approval is "not a rubberstamp," Byrd said.
In the State Department's main lobby, Powell and Armitage bade farewell to some of the department's 30,000 employees, who responded with raucous applause, cheering and, in a few cases, tears.
"You were my troops," said Powell, standing next to his wife, Alma. "We have much to look back on, many successes."
"Even though I step down as your secretary, I will never leave you. I will always be a part of this wonderful family," Powell said, before wading into the crowd to shake hands and exchange hugs.
Powell, who later left the building, will remain secretary of state until Rice is sworn in.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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