Senate Democrats on Wednesday delayed until next week the confirmation of Condoleezza Rice as US 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 George W. Bush's inauguration yesterday followed the approval of Rice's nomination by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a vote of 16-2. The committee voted after two days of often contentious hearings in which some Republicans as well as Democrats voiced anxiety over Iraq.
On the second day of sharp criticism from Democrats, 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 and John Kerry, cited her refusal to acknowledge past mistakes. Like their colleagues, both said 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 Rice from Democratic attacks, others, including Lamar Alexander and Chuck Hagel, 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 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 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 administra-tion's hopes to have her nomination approved by yesterday.
"Senator Byrd and others believe that the Senate's advice-and-consent Constitutional responsibilities are not a rubber stamp," 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 Powell will remain in office until next week, when 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 at the Senate panel over 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 Biden Jr, the ranking Democrat on the committee, repeatedly accused Rice of squandering an opportunity to admit past mistakes and draw members of both parties into an honest exchange of the difficulties ahead. Biden declared repeatedly that his own assertion that only about 4,000 Iraqi troops had been effectively trained -- 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,"' Biden said. "So I go home and people ask me, `Why are we still there?"'