WASHINGTON—Senate Democrats hammered away Tuesday at national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, using a daylong debate over her nomination to be secretary of state as a high-profile forum to bash the Bush administration for the Iraq war.
Rice, 50, is expected to be easily confirmed Wednesday to replace Colin Powell, making her the first African-American female secretary of state. But what seemed last month like a smooth path to one of the most important Cabinet positions—and the culmination of a remarkable life story that began in the heart of the segregated South—took a bumpy detour last week after two days of contentious confirmation hearings by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
For opponents of Iraq policy, Rice has become a symbol of what they say was the Bush administration's misleading case for launching war and the missteps after military victory.
"I cannot endorse higher responsibilities for those who helped to set our great country down the path of increasing isolation, enmity in the world and a war that has no end," said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., his voice booming at the end of a nearly hourlong speech. "Oh, when will our boys come home?"
Republicans countered that Rice is highly qualified for the job and Democrats were playing politics with the nomination, delaying her inevitable confirmation and possibly damaging her ability to do the job.
"Condoleezza Rice will be a great secretary of state," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. "She has the capability, she has the trusted ear of the president, she has the knowledge of foreign policy from 25 years of experience."
"Be cognizant the rest of the world is watching," said Sen. George Allen, R-Va. "Do not diminish Dr. Rice's credibility in capitals around the world."
Not all Democrats opposed Rice's nomination. Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., Ken Salazar, D-Colo., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., spoke in her favor. But Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., a moderate who voted to authorize the war in 2002, said he'd vote against Rice because "accountability is important."
Democrats joined Republicans in praising Rice as an intelligent and experienced nominee who has the trust of President Bush. But opponents of her nomination said she needed to be held accountable for her role as a chief architect of the Bush administration's foreign policy and a leading spokeswoman for war in Iraq.
"Voting to confirm Dr. Rice as secretary of state would be a stamp of approval for her participation in the distortions and exaggerations of intelligence that the administration used before it initiated the war in Iraq," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., "and the hubris that led to the administration's inexcusable failure to plan and prepare for the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, with tragic ongoing consequences."
Democrats specifically criticized Rice, who was not present during Tuesday's debate, for comments she made to CNN on Sept. 8, 2002, regarding Iraq's nuclear-weapons program.
Rice said then that aluminum tubes that Iraq had acquired "are really only suited for nuclear weapons programs," although later it was learned that there was an ongoing debate in the administration about their possible purpose. And she warned that "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud," an ominous statement about the potential nuclear threat from Iraq. After the war, U.S. weapons inspectors reported that there was no evidence of an active nuclear-weapons program in Iraq.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., sharply questioned Rice on those statements during the Foreign Relations Committee hearings last week and Rice didn't retract any of the comments.
"I'm troubled because we gave Dr. Rice every opportunity to speak candidly and set the record straight and she just didn't do that," Boxer said. "Accountability matters. Truth-telling matters. The whole truth matters. Responsibility matters."
Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., was even more blunt, saying Rice lied to him about the threat from Iraq.
"I don't like to impugn anyone's integrity, but I really don't like being lied to, repeatedly, flagrantly, intentionally. It's wrong. It's undemocratic, it's un-American and it's dangerous," Dayton said. "My vote against this nomination is my statement that this administration's lying must stop now."
(Puzzanghera reports for the San Jose Mercury News.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): RICE
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050118 RICE bio
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