The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted Wednesday to confirm Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state after two days of hearings in which she faced strenuous Democratic assaults on the Bush administration's handling of Iraq.
Pending approval by the full Senate, Rice would be the first black woman to hold the job. She was confirmed by a 16-2 vote with Democrats John Kerry of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer of California voting no.
Other Democrats, including ranking member Joseph Biden of Delaware, had said they were reluctantly voting to elevate Rice to the nation's top diplomatic job. A vote by the full Senate was expected by Thursday.
As the committee voted, Secretary of State Colin Powell bid farewell to his "family" at the State Department.
"You were my troops, you were America's troops," the former Army general said. "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 surmounted two days of sometimes contentious questioning — mostly by Democrats — on the administration's prosecution of the war.
At her hearing Wednesday, Rice acknowledged "there were some bad decisions" by the administration on Iraq, as Democrats pressed her on whether the reasons for going to war were misleading.
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.
Accused by Boxer of "rigidness," Rice responded that as national security adviser she had "no difficulty telling the president what I think."
But she also told the committee not to expect her to reveal any differences with Bush as secretary of state. "I want to be clearly understood — we are one administration, with the president in the lead," she said.
At the same time, though, Rice told the committee "I will tell you what I think. that is a promise I make to you today."
Biden suggested Rice also advise the president "to read a little bit of history" and to inform him that in Iraq "it isn't going that well."
Boxer would not be shaken off, even after Rice acknowledged to the Senate committee that "there were some bad decisions" taken by the 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."
And now, Boxer said, the toll of American dead and wounded is the "direct result" of Bush administration "rigidness" and misstatements.
Biden challenged Rice to acknowledge administration mistakes on Iraq and said he would vote for her confirmation, but only with "some frustration and reservation."
The Delaware senator, 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 had steadfastly refused Tuesday to say when U.S. forces might be withdrawn from Iraq. And on 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 terror groups and is undercutting U.S. peace efforts in the Middle East.
More than 1,365 members of the U.S. military have died since U.S. troops led an invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
But Rice has declined to estimate when even some of the 150,000 U.S. troops may return home.
"I am really reluctant to try to put a timetable on that, because I think the goal is to get the mission accomplished," she had said Tuesday, "and that means that the Iraqis have to be capable of some things before we lessen our own responsibility," she said.
The 18 members of the committee were eager to quiz Colin Powell's designated successor, although Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the panel's chairman, planned a vote following the hearing.
Committee approval would send the nomination to the Senate where confirmation appears certain — despite unease, especially among Democrats, about reasons Bush, Powell, Rice and others in the administration gave for going to war in March 2003 and how they are dealing with a deadly postwar insurgency.
At the State Department, Powell planned a farewell speech at midday, while employees were told to gather Friday in the lobby to welcome Rice on what would be her first day in charge of U.S. foreign policy.
Her positions on the war did not stem blistering criticism from Democratic senators.
Sen. John Kerry, who made Bush's management of postwar Iraq an issue in his losing presidential campaign, told Rice Tuesday that "the current policy is growing the insurgency and not diminishing it."
"This was never going to be easy," Rice said in response. "There were going to be ups and downs."
She said that after the Iraqis have voted on Jan. 30 for a transitional assembly, the Bush administration would conduct a review.
"We need to be patient," she told Kerry.
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