WASHINGTON — Voicing displeasure over the administration's handling of the core issues of prisoner abuse and the Iraq war, Senate Democrats today forced delays in the confirmation of Atty. Gen.-designate Alberto R. Gonzales and Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice.
White House officials had hoped that Rice would be confirmed and sworn in Thursday, in time for the president's inauguration celebrations. But congressional Democrats, critical of Rice's advocacy of the Iraq invasion and Gonzales' answers on abuse and torture, postponed final votes until next week at the earliest, aides said.
The maneuver underscored the limits on the new, bigger Senate Republican majority as they push Bush's legislative agenda. Even though Republicans increased their numbers in the fall election, they still need the support of some Democrats to overcome filibusters.
"There are a number of Democrats not on the committee that want to have a chance to debate [Rice's] nomination for a couple of hours," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Gonzales, who was sharply questioned about the administration's torture policy at his Jan. 6 confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, was assailed today by Democrats for written answers he provided to committee members to follow-up questions.
"These are very arrogant answers," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said at a Judiciary Committee meeting, where Democrats used a procedural device to postpone a discussion of the nomination for one week. Kennedy said Gonzales had engaged in "gross nonresponsiveness."
Kennedy said he was troubled by Gonzales' failure to provide additional documents shedding light on his thinking about administration legal positions on torture and the treatment of military detainees in Iraq and Cuba. Critics say the policies led to widely reported abuses by U.S. military personnel and others.
During the morning, Rice cleared the first hurdle toward confirmation, winning the approval of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after a second day of blunt questioning by Democrats skeptical about the Bush administration's Iraq policy.
The vote was 16 to 2. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) cast the two votes against Rice.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the committee, said before the vote that he would support Rice, but with "a little bit of frustration and some reservation."
He faulted her for what he presented as her lack of candor about problems in Iraq. "You've sort of stuck to the party line, which seems pretty consistent. You're always right, you've never made any mistakes. You're never wrong," he said.
Boxer reviewed statements Rice had made before the war in Iraq, on the links between Iraq and Al Qaeda, which Boxer claimed were not supported by facts. She said Rice had asserted that Iraq's imports of aluminum tubes had provided strong evidence that Saddam Hussein was working on a nuclear bomb, while some U.S. intelligence analysts believed otherwise.
But Rice said that her prewar comment about a "mushroom cloud" was not to suggest that Iraq had a nuclear bomb.
"It was simply a statement about uncertainty," she said.
The senator asked Rice why the Ronald Reagan administration had dispatched Donald H. Rumsfeld to try to build a relationship with Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, when Iraq was using chemical weapons.
Rice said that at that time, the U.S. government was more willing to do business with countries that did not embrace American values.
She said that in the Middle East, the United States had been "sometimes blind to the freedom deficit. ... We're not going to do that any more."
Boxer said she was "disturbed" by Rice's nomination, citing what she considered unwillingness to acknowledge errors. "It's about candor. It's about telling the full story," Boxer said.
Other questions this morning dealt with recent training of Iraqi troops, plans for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and Iran and Latin America.
On Tuesday, Rice told the panel that the Iraqi insurgency "cannot be overcome by military force alone," but declined to predict how long U.S. troops must remain in the country while waiting for Iraqis to forge political solutions and assume responsibility for security.
Offering a close look at President Bush's second-term foreign policy plans during her confirmation hearing, Rice strongly defended the administration's course on Iraq, but acknowledged that the United States faced "big tactical challenges" and said that some past decisions on Iraq "might not have been good."
Rice, Bush's national security advisor in his first term, said that as the nation's top diplomat she would rebuild strained American alliances and work to win over Muslims and other disaffected groups around the world. She called for a "transformational diplomacy" to carry out Bush's aim to spread American values abroad — "the great mission for American diplomacy today."
Rice, 50, a former Soviet specialist and Stanford University provost, is expected to be confirmed easily. She is close to the president — more so than outgoing Secretary of State Colin L. Powell — and is widely expected to have more influence in the job.
In a sometimes stormy 9 1/2-hour session Tuesday, Rice said she would follow Bush's stated view that "alliances and multilateral institutions can multiply the strength of freedom-loving nations."
Her most rancorous exchange was with Boxer, who said Rice had falsely claimed before the war that Iraq would soon have a nuclear bomb and that she shifted arguments as the administration's needs changed.
"Your loyalty to the mission overwhelmed your respect for the truth," Boxer charged.
Retorted Rice: "I have never, ever lost respect for the truth in the service of anything I'm happy to continue the discussion, but I'd like to do it in such a way that it does not impugn my integrity."
Rice said it would be up to Iraq's elected leaders to unite the country. Iraqis "are going to have to find their own way politically, and we will be there to support them," she said.
While acknowledging that some U.S. decisions in Iraq were faulty, she did not specify which decisions and said that "the strategic decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein was the right one."
Democrats warned Rice that she faced a major challenge in repairing relations abroad.
"We inspire as much envy and resentment as we do admiration and gratitude," Biden said. "Relations with many of our oldest friends are, quite frankly, scraping the bottom right now."
But Rice rejected accusations from Kerry and others that the administration had not done enough to enlist allies in the Iraq mission. She disputed Kerry's suggestion that Russia and India had offered peacekeeping forces for Iraq.
Pressed by Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska on a timetable for departure from Iraq, Rice said: "Our role is directly proportional to how capable the Iraqis are."
She said she was "really reluctant to try to put a timetable on that, because I think the goal is to get the mission accomplished, and that means that the Iraqis have to be capable of some things before we lessen our own responsibility."
She outlined general benchmarks, however.
"It isn't that we have to see an Iraq that is a fully democratized, mature economy, fully able to deal with all of its divisions," she said. "That's going to take a very, very, very long time. What we have to see is that they've been launched on a path to be able to achieve that."
Although most of the tough questions and comments for Rice came from Democrats, there were some from Republicans. Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), the panel's chairman, suggested to Rice that the administration should devise a way to measure the progress of Iraqi security forces that are being trained.
"I think we can probably do better with the question," Lugar said. "There have to be some indicators that give a sense of progress and hope and what have you for this."
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.,) who was Education secretary for President George H.W. Bush, asked whether American nation-building was the best way to spread democracy.
"My own view of that is that there is more than one way to spread freedom around the world," Alexander said. "One way is to change a regime and try to make a country more like ours. Another way might be to celebrate our own values and strengthen ourselves and be a good example."
Four years ago, in her early days as part of the Bush team, Rice had rejected the idea of American nation-building operations. But she said Tuesday that she now recognized that the U.S. government must undertake such missions on occasion.
She compared the current struggle against Islamic extremism to the Cold War and said the United States needed the same commitment it had in the era that began at the end of World War II.
Rice offered a list of countries that she described as "outposts of oppression," including Cuba, Myanmar, North Korea, Iran, Zimbabwe and Belarus.
She pledged "engagement at all levels" in a quest for Middle East peace and predicted that she would personally spend "an enormous amount of time" in the effort.
During his first term, Bush kept a distance from the Palestinian-Israeli issue. But Rice said the election of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has presented "a moment of opportunity, and we must seize it."
She declared the administration would continue efforts to prevent North Korea and Iran from developing nuclear programs but offered few details beyond saying the administration had no plans to launch military action against either country.
Rice offered blunt criticism of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, saying the United States was "very concerned about a democratically elected leader who governs in an illiberal way, and some of the steps he's taken against the media, against the opposition, I think are really very deeply troubling."
The populist Chavez, whose country is a major U.S. oil supplier, believes that the United States supports his domestic opponents and has sparred with the administration for years.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) grilled Rice on the treatment of terrorism suspects in U.S. custody, asking her whether she considered alleged abuse to be torture. Rice said she would leave it to the Justice Department to provide a legal definition of torture.
Dodd demanded to know how Rice would respond if she saw television images of captured Americans being subjected to coercive interrogation methods. "American personnel are not engaged in terrorism," Rice responded.
But she said U.S. officials expected captured Americans to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Repeating a long-standing administration policy, she said individuals associated with Al Qaeda did not qualify as prisoners of war under the convention.
Dodd told Rice it was dangerous to be seen as "waffling" on the issue and said he was troubled by her reply.
In another heated exchange, Dodd stopped Rice as she described acts committed by terrorists. "Don't become like them," Dodd said.
Boxer and Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) also criticized Rice for her responses to questions about detainee abuses. "It is simply not OK to equivocate on torture," Feingold said.
Kerry pushed Rice to accelerate U.S. efforts to remove nuclear and chemical bomb-making material from former Soviet nations. Rice said that nonproliferation issues would be on the agenda when Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin met in the coming weeks.
Times staff writer Sonni Efron in Washington contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times