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Senate panel backs Rice as secretary of state

/ Source: NBC News and news services

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted Wednesday to approve Condoleezza Rice’s nomination to be secretary of state, but after two days of strenuous questioning on the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq, Democrats planned to delay her widely expected confirmation by the full Senate, NBC News has learned.

The committee approved Rice by a 16-2 vote, with only Democrats John Kerry of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer of California voting not to recommend that she be confirmed. She was the first nominee for secretary of state to receive any “no” votes since Alexander M. Haig in 1981.

Other Democrats, including ranking member Joseph Biden of Delaware, said they were only reluctantly voting to elevate Rice to the nation’s top diplomatic job.

If approved by the full Senate, Rice, 50, President Bush’s national security adviser, would be the first black woman to hold the job.

White House taken by surprise
Rice’s quick confirmation by the full Senate on Thursday had been considered a formality, but Democrats who opposed the nomination were in negotiations with Senate leaders for a full floor debate and a roll-call vote. With most senators attending events surrounding Bush’s inauguration Thursday, those demands could delay Rice’s confirmation into next week, NBC News’ Ken Strickland reported.

“There are a number of Democrats not on the committee that want to have a chance to debate her nomination [for] a couple of hours,” Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, told The Associated Press later.

As though to highlight their protest over Rice, Manley said he expected that Democrats would quickly assent to confirmation Thursday of two other members of Bush’s second-term Cabinet: Mike Johans, nominated for agriculture secretary, and Margaret Spellings, named to take over as education secretary.

The Democratic maneuver surprised the White House, which had expected to have Rice in place shortly after Bush was sworn in Thursday for his second term. A spokesman told NBC News: “It’s troubling to see some in the Senate want to play politics with national security.”

The spokesman criticized the delay because one of the recommendations of the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was that vacancies in positions related to national security should be filled quickly. State Department officials, however, said the post would not be vacant, telling NBC News that outgoing Secretary Colin Powell would remain on the job until Rice was confirmed and sworn in.

Powell bids farewell
Until then, Powell was going ahead with preparations to relinquish his post, bidding farewell to employees in a brief ceremony Wednesday at the State Department.

“You were my troops. You were America’s troops,” said Powell, a retired Army general. “You are the carriers of America’s values.”

He called Rice “a dear friend” and said she would bring “gifted leadership” to the department.

Rice, meanwhile, came under tough questioning for a second straight day from Democrats who charged that she had failed to “level with the American people” about the reasons the Bush administration went to war in Iraq.

Rice insisted that Saddam Hussein was a dictator who refused to account for weapons of mass destruction. And it was impossible to change the nature of a terror threat in the Middle East with him leading Iraq, she testified.

Boxer: Rice was ‘selling war’
Boxer would not be shaken off, even after Rice acknowledged that “there were some bad decisions” taken by the Bush administration on Iraq.

She accused Rice of “an unwillingness to give Americans the full story because selling the war was so important to Dr. Rice. That was her job.”

Now, Boxer said, the toll of U.S. dead and wounded was the “direct result” of Bush administration “rigidness” and misstatements.

Biden also challenged Rice to acknowledge administration mistakes. He said he would vote for her confirmation, but only with “some frustration and reservation.”

Biden, zeroing in on U.S. policy in Iraq as he had during Tuesday’s initial hearing, accused the administration of giving shifting reasons to justify the war to oust Saddam.

Rice steadfastly refused Tuesday to say when U.S. forces might be withdrawn from Iraq. Wednesday, Biden cited various rationales for the war, saying “you danced around it, stuck to the party line.”

He told Rice that acknowledging mistakes — such as the claim that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was poised to use them — should not be considered “a sign of weakness.”

Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., meanwhile, urged Rice to consider reconciliation with Iran, which he said was about as repressive as China was when the Nixon administration approached Beijing for better relations.

But Rice said, “It is really hard to find common ground with a government that thinks Israel should be extinguished,” supports terrorist groups and is undercutting U.S. peace efforts in the Middle East.