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Democrats blast Rice's role in Iraq war

Senate majority leader predicts confirmation of secretary of state

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Democratic senators used Tuesday's debate on Condoleezza Rice's nomination for secretary of state to blast the Bush administration over the war in Iraq, saying Rice dodged questions about her role in the war during last week's confirmation hearing.

California Sen. Barbara Boxer, one of two Democrats to vote against Rice's nomination in the Foreign Relations Committee, said the national security adviser's answers to her questions were "completely nonresponsive" and raised more issues about her credibility than they answered.

"President Bush in his inaugural address talked about bringing freedom to countries that don't have it. He didn't specify how," Boxer said. "I worry about sending more troops on military missions based on hyped-up rhetoric. And that's why these questions are so important."

Rice is expected to win the GOP-controlled Senate's blessing to succeed Colin Powell as head of the State Department with the support of some Democrats. A vote is expected Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, told reporters Tuesday that he expected Rice's nomination to be approved "with an overwhelming majority."

But Democratic leaders forced an extended debate on the nomination in order to express their concerns over prewar claims about Iraq that Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois said were "just plain wrong, and repeated."

"Dr. Condoleezza Rice was in the room, at the table, when decisions were made, and she has to accept responsibility for what she said," Durbin said.

Sen. John Warner, a Virginia Republican, defended Rice, calling attacks on her integrity "somewhat astonishing" and noting that many governments had considered Iraq "a grave and gathering threat."

"I do not find any disloyalty, any lack of truthfulness in her remarks publicly throughout this process as it related to the earlier base of knowledge of weapons of mass destruction," said Warner, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

But Boxer pointed to several statements Rice made after the March 2003 invasion that she said contradicted not only Rice's previous statements but also those of President Bush.

"It's too hard to overlook these things," she said.

Rice was one of many Bush administration officials to warn that Iraq was hiding stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and trying to develop a nuclear bomb -- warnings that were found to be untrue after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

"I think everybody remembers when Dr. Rice went on television and talked about the mushroom cloud that we could get, courtesy of Saddam Hussein," Boxer said.

But when Rice is questioned about those statements, Boxer said, "She doesn't answer the question. She doesn't correct the record. And it's very troubling."

The war in Iraq has so far claimed nearly 1,400 American lives and cost about $150 million. The Bush administration confirmed Tuesday that it will seek an additional $80 billion for the wars there and in Afghanistan.

Warner said Bush's decision to invade Iraq was correct "in light of the facts that were known, to the best of our judgment, at that time."

But Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, said the war there has become "a catastrophic failure, a continuing quagmire" -- and he called Rice "a principal architect of our failed policy."

Kennedy said he believes Bush should be allowed to choose his Cabinet and that Rice has extensive experience and credentials. But he added, "In these continuing circumstances, she should not be promoted to secretary of state."

Some of the strongest language came from Sen. Mark Dayton, a Minnesota Democrat.

"My vote against this nominee is my statement that this administration's lies must stop now," he said.

Support from some Democrats

Rice gained approval last week from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a 16-2 vote, sending her nomination to the full Senate for consideration. (Full story)

The panel's two dissenting votes came from Boxer and Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Bush in the 2004 presidential race.

Rice sparred with Boxer several times last week, at one point accusing the senator of impugning her integrity. Boxer called that a debating trick that allowed Rice to avoid answering questions.

Several Democratic senators subsequently objected to a Republican-led push for a quick vote on Rice's nomination, which would have allowed her confirmation to take place on Inauguration Day.

"I was disappointed at the fact that we were unable to have her nomination approved last week," Frist said. "She'll do a superb job, and I can't think of anybody better qualified."

Some Democrats -- including Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman -- have said they will support Rice's nomination.

"Our responsibility is to determine whether the nominee is fit for the position ... and whether the nominee, in our judgment, will serve in the national interest," Lieberman said Tuesday. "Dr. Condoleezza Rice meets that standard at least and much more."

Foreign Affairs Chairman Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, said senators "have the responsibility to ensure that our first impulse in foreign affairs is one of bipartisanship."

And Boxer's fellow Californian, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, said Rice should not be blamed for "wrong and bad intelligence."

If confirmed, Rice would become the first African-American woman and second woman to become secretary of state.

Rice, the daughter of a minister from Birmingham, Alabama, entered college at 15 and earned a doctorate in international affairs by 26. She was a Soviet expert in the first Bush administration and tutored the current president on international policy during the 2000 campaign before becoming his national security adviser.

CNN's Ed Henry contributed to this report.

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