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Rice becomes 1st black female secretary of state amid sharp criticism

WASHINGTON—The Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to confirm Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, despite sharp criticism by some Democrats over her role in planning and selling the Iraq war. Rice is the first African-American woman to serve as the nation's top diplomat.

"Condi Rice is a fine, fine public servant, greatly admired here in America and greatly admired around the world," President Bush said during a news conference shortly before Rice's 85-13 confirmation by the Senate. "And she will make a great secretary of state."

Rice, 50, who'd served as national security adviser since 2001 and is one of Bush's most trusted aides, was sworn in at a private ceremony Wednesday night at the White House. She was scheduled to report to the State Department on Thursday morning to take over from Colin Powell.

Rice's confirmation is the culmination of what one supporter, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called "a great American success story." She's risen from the youthful experience of racial discrimination in the segregated South to one of the nation's most storied jobs.

"Dr. Rice possesses this rare combination of management and administrative experience, of policy expertise, of academic scholarship and, not least importantly, personal integrity and character," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

Rice also made some unwanted history Wednesday when 12 Democrats and independent Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont voted against her nomination, an almost unprecedented outburst that was fueled by anger over the Iraq war. It was the second-most "no" votes ever for a secretary of state, according to the Senate Historical Office. In 1825, Henry Clay was confirmed 27-14.

"It should send a message," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who led the opposition to Rice's nomination and cast one of the votes against her. "Even if there were only two or three votes, the debate should send a very important message about candor and the whole truth and about being accountable and responsible for the things you say."

During often-contentious debate on the Senate floor Tuesday and Wednesday, Boxer and others accused Rice of misleading the nation about the threat from Iraq before the war and failing to admit mistakes in trying to stabilize the country after it.

The votes against Rice were an unusual rebuke to a sitting president, who traditionally is given wide leeway in choosing his Cabinet members, particularly secretary of state. Most previous nominees, including Powell, were confirmed by voice vote, indicating near-unanimous support. In other examples, the Senate on Wednesday confirmed Jim Nicholson as Veterans Affairs secretary and Michael Leavitt as Health And Human Services secretary by voice votes.

The most "no" votes previously against a secretary of state since Clay came in 1973, when seven were cast against Henry Kissinger amid strong opposition to the Vietnam War, which he'd helped direct as national security adviser to President Nixon.

Rice followed Kissinger's path from national security adviser to secretary of state and faced strong criticism from Democrats for her role in guiding a controversial war, hers in Iraq. Even some Democrats who voted to confirm her, such as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Joseph Biden of Delaware, said they did so despite reservations.

"Last week we gave Dr. Rice an opportunity to acknowledge the mistakes and misjudgments of the past four years," Biden said of more than 10 hours of questioning of Rice by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he's the senior Democrat. "Instead of seizing that opportunity, Dr. Rice stuck to the administration's party line: always right, never wrong."

Republicans said the Democrats were just playing politics and were improperly impugning the credibility of a woman who was eminently qualified.

"I can only conclude we're doing this for no other reason than because of lingering bitterness at the outcome of the elections," McCain said. "We need to move on."


(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): 20040118, RICE bio

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