The Senate Foreign Relations Committee endorsed the nomination of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state on a 16 to 2 vote yesterday after Democrats on the panel expressed deep frustration at her answers on Iraq and terrorism in two days of hearings.
In a rare admission, Rice conceded that the administration had made some "bad decisions" on Iraq. But she still hewed closely to the administration's policies, maintaining an especially tough line on Iran.
The committee vote came moments after the outgoing secretary of state, Colin L. Powell, made an emotional farewell to hundreds of State Department employees gathered in the building's vast lobby, praising them as "my troops" and "wonderful patriots."
A spokesman for Senate Democrats said yesterday that they will not attempt to block Rice's nomination but hope to have a chance to debate it on the Senate floor next week before a vote. A spokeswoman for Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.), however, said no commitments have been made and that the nomination could reach the Senate floor today.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who lost the presidential election to President Bush, and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) were the two members of the 18-person committee who voted against Rice's nomination. But other Democrats joined them in criticizing what they characterized as evasive answers and an unwillingness in nearly 10 hours of testimony Tuesday to concede any fault in administration decision making during Bush's first term, when Rice served as national security adviser.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), the panel's senior Democrat, told Rice he will vote for her, "with a little bit of frustration and some reservation," mainly because he feels that a president generally deserves to have his Cabinet choices approved.
"Instead of seizing the opportunity, it seems to me, Dr. Rice, you danced around it. You sort of stuck to the party line, which seems pretty consistent: You're always right," Biden said. "It's almost like if I acknowledge any weakness, if I acknowledge any misjudgments on the part of me or the president or anyone in the team, it's a sign of weakness. I personally don't think it is. I think it's a sign of some degree of maturation, strength."
After Biden's statement, Rice reiterated that she thought the decision to invade Iraq should be viewed in how it "adds up" in the grand sweep of history. But she went further than on Tuesday -- when she said some decisions "might not have been good" -- to acknowledge that mistakes had been made in conducting the invasion of Iraq.
"We've made a lot of decisions in this period of time," Rice said. "Some of them have been good. Some of them have not been good. Some of them have been bad decisions, I'm sure."
Rice did not cite specific decisions, though she pointed to a new office in the State Department tasked with managing reconstruction in war-torn nations. "I think that's a lesson learned," Rice said. "We didn't have the right skills, the right capacity to deal with a reconstruction effort of this kind."
During the run-up to the war, the Pentagon -- with the White House's permission -- took control of the postwar reconstruction effort, ignoring the efforts of a large task force at the State Department that had been charged with examining the difficulties of rebuilding Iraq after an invasion.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) told Rice that he assumed she was being evasive to keep the administration's options open. "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," he said. " 'Trust us,' I think is the message, 'and we'll make the best decisions.' " Obama urged Rice to demonstrate independence from the White House line, much as Powell had during his troubled tenure, when he was often at odds with Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "I think that people felt that he was speaking on behalf of the American people and not simply being a mouthpiece for the administration," Obama said.
But Rice, who earned a reputation for maintaining tight control over media operations at the National Security Council, made it clear she had no intention of allowing policy differences to publicly emerge.
"I have no difficulty telling the president exactly what I think. I've done that for four years. Sometimes he agrees, and sometimes he doesn't," she said. But she added, "In my role as secretary, I want it to be clearly understood that I still believe that we are one administration with the president in the lead."
Biden, during the discussion of the training of Iraqi troops, encouraged Rice to seek out alternative views. "For God's sake, don't listen to Rumsfeld," Biden exclaimed. "He doesn't know what . . . he's talking about on this."
Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.) urged Rice to consider opening up with Iran, which he noted is as repressive as China was when the United States sought a diplomatic opening three decades ago. But Rice said she finds it "really hard to find common ground" with a nation supporting terrorist groups attacking Israel.
Powell, in his farewell speech, appeared to choke up a little. The retired general told the assembled diplomats that even though he remained a soldier at heart, he will never forget the State Department.
"You were my troops," he said to sustained applause. "After four years of being with you, serving this department, the relationship is the same. And even though I step down as your secretary, I will never leave you."
Staff writer Charles Babington contributed to this report.