Thursday, January 20, 2005

Democrats Delay Final Approval of Rice for State Dept.

The New York Times
January 20, 2005
Democrats Delay Final Approval of Rice for State Dept.

WASHINGTON, Jan. 19 - Senate Democrats on Wednesday delayed until next week the confirmation of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, a pointed but symbolic gesture of their skepticism about the administration's plans for Iraq.

Their refusal to hold a quick vote on the floor immediately after President Bush is inaugurated on Thursday followed the approval of Ms. Rice's nomination by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a vote of 16 to 2.

The committee voted after two days of often contentious hearings in which some Republicans as well as Democrats voiced concern over Iraq.

On the second day of sharp criticism from Democrats, Ms. Rice went only slightly beyond her testimony of Tuesday, in which she had vigorously defended the administration's decisions before and since the war began: On Wednesday she said, "Some of them have been bad decisions, I am sure." Among those, she conceded, was the failure to anticipate difficulties in rebuilding Iraq.

The two Democratic senators who voted against her, Barbara Boxer of California and John Kerry of Massachusetts, cited her refusal to acknowledge past mistakes. Like their colleagues, both said Ms. Rice's approval was inevitable.

But the questions asked by some Republicans on the subject, while not as confrontational, in some ways spoke louder than the Democrats' shouting.

Though some Republicans defended Ms. Rice from Democratic attacks, others, including Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, chimed in that the administration needed to present a clear plan for achieving its goals in Iraq and making a withdrawal possible.

Underscoring the Democrats' dissatisfaction, Senator Robert C. Byrd, an outspoken critic of the decision to go to war, announced late in the day that he would not allow the Senate to approve Ms. Rice without a few days of consideration of her lengthy testimony, and at least a token debate on the floor. His refusal to join in the unanimous consent of all senators for a quick vote effectively torpedoed the administration's hopes to have her nomination approved Thursday.

"Senator Byrd and others believe that the Senate's advise-and-consent constitutional responsibilities are not a rubber stamp," Mr. Byrd's spokesman said.

"The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has held two days of hearings. Senators should have a chance to review those hearings, read the transcripts, and think about their votes before casting them."

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will remain in office until next week, when Ms. Rice's nomination is expected to be approved.

Whatever frustration there was in the administration over this last-minute snag was balanced in part by frustration among some of the senators over Ms. Rice's testimony, in which she refused to second-guess past decisions on Iraq and also refused to be very specific in outlining the future.

Among those who debated her most vigorously before voting in favor of confirmation, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., the ranking Democrat on the committee, repeatedly accused Ms. Rice of squandering an opportunity to admit past mistakes and draw members of both parties into an honest exchange of the difficulties ahead.

In particular, Senator Biden declared repeatedly that his own assertion that only about 4,000 Iraqi troops had been effectively trained - Ms. Rice said the number was 120,000 - had been based on confidential discussions with military commanders in Iraq.

"You all don't do anything except parrot, 'We've trained 120,000 forces,' " Mr. Biden said. "So I go home and people ask me, 'Why are we still there?' "

He added that it was worthless to listen to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on this subject because "he doesn't know what in the hell he's talking about on this."

Ms. Rice grimaced.

As administration officials noted after the hearings, military decisions and training activities will not fall under her authority.

In many ways Ms. Rice's words on the broad scope of foreign policy were intended to reassure the committee, which under the leadership of Senator Richard G. Lugar, the Republican chairman, is one of Washington's remaining bipartisan redoubts supporting the idea of diplomacy and working with allies.

"The time for diplomacy is now," she said at least twice.

But her testimony on the administration's "exit strategy" for Iraq was less reassuring to committee members. She said it rested on three principles: training more Iraqis to replace American troops, speeding construction money and getting Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds to bring about reconciliation among themselves after the election on Jan. 30.

"You want us to assume that you'll make sound decisions based on immediate circumstances," said the most junior member of the committee, Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, who said Ms. Rice was looking for "wiggle room" on a number of foreign policy issues. "And I think that the reason it's hard to pin you down on an exit strategy, or Iran, or these other circumstances, is you don't want to bind this administration."

In addition to the training of Iraqi security forces, the reconstruction effort has been slowed by the violent insurgency in Iraq, committee members noted. The administration has disbursed only $2.5 billion of the $18.4 billion in reconstruction funds that were appropriated in late 2003.

Finally, on political reconciliation, the administration has begun bracing for more violence and possibly more political strife after the vote, especially because hopes for a strong Sunni turnout are growing dim.

But reconciling Iraqis is a task that only Iraqis themselves can undertake, Ms. Rice implied, with Americans standing on the sideline.