WASHINGTON – Trying to make their mark on President Bush's strategy in Iraq, Senate Democrats extracted a promise from Condoleezza Rice (search) to level with them when she takes over as secretary of state.
Rice seemed agreeable, to a point.
"We can certainly have, I think, a healthy debate about the course that we should take going forward," she said Wednesday in response to Democrats who criticized Bush's rationale for overthrowing Saddam Hussein and his handling of a postwar insurgency that is taking a growing toll of American soldiers in Iraq.
"I will be candid," Rice promised. "My assessments may not always be ones that you want to hear. They may not always be the ones with which you agree. But I will tell you what I think."
And that, she said, "is a promise that I make to you today."
Rice coupled the promise with an admission that some Bush administration decisions in Iraq were bad ones, but she did not elaborate or give ground on the principal elements of the administration's policy there.
Critics on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, only two of whom — Democrats John Kerry (search) of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer (search) of California — voted against her confirmation, clearly were hoping that Rice would act as a check on Bush.
Their criticism is likely to carry over to next week when Democrats will speak on the nomination on the Senate floor on Tuesday, with a vote likely the next day.
Initially, Rice had looked forward to confirmation Thursday a few hours after President Bush took the oath of office for a second term.
White House chief of staff Andrew Card said Thursday the Democrats' decision to delay her confirmation smacked of "petty politics."
"She certainly is qualified and ready to be the secretary of state," he said on CBS' "The Early Show." "We're anxious to have her there and there's not a doubt in my mind that she will be confirmed and she should be confirmed quickly. But some people are practicing what I would call petty politics and that's unfortunate."
The Democrats' motivation in seeking exchanges with Rice is apparent. They hope that by engaging Rice in a debate of some kind they might be able to influence policy.
They seemed to have Colin Powell (search), her predecessor, in mind. His reputation for taking strong stands even if they conflicted with what Bush was hearing from other advisers made him popular on Capitol Hill, although he never did more than hint at having a divergent point of view.
A freshman Democrat, Sen. Barack Obama (search) of Illinois, reached out for Powell as an example of candor in quizzing Rice.
"Your predecessor had a reputation of being willing to maybe tell the president some things that he didn't always want to hear," Obama said. "I think he displayed a certain independence that was encouraging and I think that people felt that he was speaking on behalf of the American people and not simply being a mouthpiece for the administration."
He urged Rice "to display some independence and make certain that, as you're making these difficult calculations, that you are not engaging in simply agreement with the conventional wisdom inside the White House."
One of the Democratic critics, Sen. Joseph Biden (search) of Delaware, expressed hope that Rice was not a "neo-conservative." He also said he was not sure about that.
In four years as Bush's assistant for national security affairs, Rice gave no public indication that she dissented from his foreign policy — or disagreed with Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other hard-line senior advisers. Nor in the sometimes difficult two-day confirmation hearing did Rice suggest she would be an active dissenter.
But, she said, "I have no difficulty telling the president exactly what I think. I have done that for years."
"Sometimes he agrees and sometimes he doesn't," she said. "The fact is that I felt very strongly that no one else should ever know the times when he disagreed and the times when he didn't."