updated 2/15/2006 12:43:59 PM ET 2006-02-15T17:43:59

Republican senators criticized the Bush administration Wednesday over its policies in Iraq, Iran and the Palestinian territories, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s first testimony on Capitol Hill in months exposed her to a tough grilling from some members of her own party.

“I don’t see, Madame Secretary, how things are getting better. I think things are getting worse. I think they’re getting worse in Iraq. I think they’re getting worse in Iran,” Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., told Rice as she appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Rice also had a tense exchange with moderate Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., over the pace of progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace and the implications of the Hamas victory in Palestinian legislative elections last month.

“We will continue to insist that the leaders of Hamas must recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism and work for lasting peace,” Rice said.

Though the moderate Chafee and Hagel, a frequent GOP maverick, are less conservative than many of their Republican colleagues, their criticism underscored a widespread frustration in Congress with the difficult problems the United States is facing across the Middle East.

Iran strategy includes media
Rice tried to take the offensive by announcing an administration request for $75 million this year to build democracy in Iran, saying the U.S. must support Iranians who are seeking freedoms under what she called a radical regime.

The U.S. and its European allies are confronting Iran over its nuclear program. But Tehran has remained defiant and said this week that it is resuming small-scale uranium enrichment, which many countries fear could be an early step toward production of fuel for a nuclear bomb.

“They have now crossed a point where they are in open defiance of the international community,” Rice said.

She declined to detail what punishment the United States is pursuing, although she did acknowledge that the United States has analyzed the impact of oil sanctions on Iran as part of a broad review of all available tools and has a “menu of options” available.

“You will see us trying to walk a fine line in actions we take,” Rice said.

The money Rice wants for Iran, to be included in an emergency 2006 budget request the White House is expected to send to Congress as early as this week, would be used for radio and satellite television broadcasting and for programs to help Iranians study abroad.

“The United States wishes to reach out to the Iranian people and support their desire to realize their own freedom and to secure their own democratic and human rights. The Iranian people should know that the United States fully supports their aspirations for a freer, better future,” Rice said.

Democrats aggressive as well
At one point, Rice and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., interrupted one another as they argued about U.S. policy in the Middle East, where the Democrat accused the Bush administration of having a “tin ear” to Arab views.

Boxer, who was one of Rice’s most persistent critics during a contentious confirmation process last year, also recalled Rice’s warning before the 2003 Iraq invasion that the world could not afford to let the “smoking gun” of Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction become a “mushroom cloud.”

“That was a farce and the truth is coming out,” Boxer said.

Rice plans a trip to the Middle East next week, including stops in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where the issue was sure to arise.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., challenged Rice over whether she was involved in leaking classified information. “I have always acted lawfully,” Rice said.

And, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, top Democrat on the panel, said “I’m not hopeful” of a unity government in Iraq.

“The policy seems not to be succeeding,” he said.

Spying program cited
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., pressed Rice on an issue related to her previous job as Bush’s national security adviser: the president’s controversial spying program.

Rice said she supported the program because the president had the authority and the program was necessary to prevent terrorism. “I frankly felt that we were blind and deaf at the time of September 11th and that our highest obligation was not to be blind and deaf again,” she said.

The leading Shiite bloc in Iraq’s fledgling democracy has chosen Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to serve another term and lead the country’s new government. The U.S. wants al-Jaafari to form a national unity government with Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds, hoping that will rein in the violence that has raged since Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003, but sectarian differences remain.

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