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Rice Is Confirmed Despite Opposition

Times Staff Writers

The Senate on Wednesday confirmed the nomination of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of State and moved a step closer to approving Alberto R. Gonzales, President Bush’s choice to be attorney general, even as Democrats mustered surprisingly strong and often personal opposition to both nominees.

The 85-13 vote on Rice’s confirmation was the sharpest Senate opposition to a secretary of State nominee since World War II. And with some Democrats withdrawing their support for Gonzales, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-8, along party lines, to send that nomination to the full Senate.

Both nominees ran into opposition from lawmakers seeking accountability for administration missteps in Iraq and policies on torture. The votes reflected growing anger and frustration among Democrats who believe that the Bush administration has failed to acknowledge mistakes in the war on terrorism.

The vote on Rice, who until recently was Bush’s national security advisor, came after an unexpectedly bitter and divisive day and a half of debate that included direct attacks on her veracity and the administration’s handling of the Iraq war.

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“We made history,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who was among the most outspoken critics of Rice during the confirmation process.

Boxer was among the 12 Democrats and one independent who voted against confirmation. Two Republican senators did not vote.

Four years ago, Rice’s predecessor, retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell, was confirmed unanimously. The last recorded “no” vote on the confirmation for a secretary of State was in January 1981, when six senators opposed President Reagan’s nominee, Alexander M. Haig Jr.

Rice was to be sworn in privately Wednesday night at the White House. She begins her job today and will have a public swearing-in ceremony Friday.

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Constitutional experts described the “no” votes as a warning but not one that would seriously affect Rice’s international credibility or her relations with Congress.

Thomas E. Mann, a specialist at Washington’s Brookings Institution on relations between the presidency and the Congress, called the result “a shot across the bow.”

“She is widely seen among Democrats and a few Republicans as being too loyal to the president and insufficiently forthcoming about problems encountered and mistakes made,” he said. “She will have to be more of a straight shooter in dealing with Congress.”

Mann said the vote also reflected growing public disenchantment with the war in Iraq and the calculation among many Democrats that opposing the administration’s handling of the war would be “a political plus in the years ahead.”

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Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) stressed that a vote against Rice’s confirmation should not be interpreted by those outside the U.S. as a rejection of efforts to bring democracy to Iraq, declaring, “We’re united on one point: We all want to win in Iraq.”

Rice’s confirmation was never in doubt, and GOP leaders hailed the final vote as an overwhelming endorsement. Noting that Rice would be the first African American woman to hold the job, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) called the result historic.

He described Rice as someone who possessed a “rare blend” of administrative experience, policy expertise and academic scholarship. Frist also pointedly praised her “personal integrity and character.”

Two earlier secretaries of State who were confirmed amid controversy are today considered among America’s most successful: Dean Acheson, who served under President Truman, and Henry A. Kissinger, who held office under presidents Nixon and Ford.

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The sharply divided committee vote on Gonzales illustrated how his nomination had experienced a sudden fall from grace. The Democrats initially welcomed his nomination as heralding an era of cooperation with the Justice Department; their relationship with outgoing Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft was often strained, particularly after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Gonzales, Bush’s White House counsel and a former Texas Supreme Court justice, is tied to a series of administration legal memos that critics say led to abuses of U.S. military detainees and suspected terrorists in Iraq and Cuba. Democrats had hoped that his confirmation hearing would shed light on how those practices evolved, but they accused Gonzales of failing to fully explain his role.

Among the Democrats opposing Gonzales on Wednesday was Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin. As a committee member four years ago, he was the lone member of his party voting to approve Ashcroft, who had just lost his bid for reelection to the Senate from Missouri.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he had initially believed that “Judge Gonzales was a much less polarizing figure than Sen. Ashcroft had been. But being less polarizing than John Ashcroft isn’t enough, alone, to get my vote.”

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Schumer said he changed his mind because he found Gonzales’ responses to the committee’s questioning about torture and other issues to be evasive and because he had grave doubts whether the long-time advisor to Bush could be independent from the president if he should be confirmed.

Gonzales “obfuscated more than he clarified,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who called the nominee “a legal enabler to the president.”

Gonzales wrote a memo for Bush holding that the Geneva Convention did not cover prisoners picked up in the war in Afghanistan. He also solicited an opinion from the Justice Department that gave the CIA wide latitude in conducting interrogations without fear of being prosecuted under federal anti-torture laws -- an opinion that Gonzales said at his Jan. 6 confirmation hearing he could not recall requesting, even though it was addressed to him in writing.

Democrats had criticized Gonzales for not turning over notes and other materials that reflected his thinking on torture.

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On Wednesday, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he had asked Gonzales to conduct a search for “any draft or final memoranda” that he wrote on the subject.

According to Specter, a White House search of electronic records, including Gonzales’ computer hard drive, failed to turn up relevant documents, and Gonzales has told the senator he is “virtually certain” he never wrote any.

Republicans defended Gonzales, and said Democrats were blaming him for problems that were not of his making. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) predicted that the full Senate would approve Gonzales by “an overwhelming vote.”

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Times staff writer Johanna Neuman contributed to this report.


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