WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice found herself at the intersection of anger and ambition when senators called her to account Thursday for a deeply unpopular war.
Five presidential aspirants on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as other up-and-comers in the new Democratic majority, made sure their voices were heard. And these voices — Republican ones included — were full of frustration and mistrust about how President Bush has prosecuted and pitched the Iraq war.
Even Rice's status as a single woman was fair game.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., noted Rice has no children of her own to lose overseas. "Who pays the price?" Boxer repeatedly demanded. "You're not going to pay a particular price," she told Rice, because the secretary has no "immediate family" at risk.
On the other side of the Capitol, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a new face on the years-old Iraq policy, largely got a pass when he testified before the House Armed Service Committee about Bush's Iraq strategy.
Rice is notably unflappable. Her face was tight, her voice even, occasionally and briefly speeding up to meet the jabs coming her way. She did not give much away or lose her temper.
But she might find her trip to the volatile Middle East starting Friday a vacation compared with her time before the committee.
Years of pent-up frustration in both parties spilled over.
A "fool's paradise," was how Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, who had just announced his Democratic presidential candidacy hours earlier, described Iraq policy.
"A tragic mistake," was how Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, the committee chairman and White House hopeful, put it.
And this, from a Republican who also has presidential aspirations: "The most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam." Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska was talking about Bush's speech on Wednesday night, when the president announced his plan to increase U.S. troops in Iraq.
Hagel has opposed the Bush policy for some time. But Sen. Bill Nelson, a moderate Democrat from Florida, has supported it. No more.
"I have not been told the truth," Nelson said. "I have not been told the truth over and over again."
Two more presidential aspirants weighed in. "Unbelievably off the mark," Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said of Bush's approach. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois picked through the Iraq policy in a restrained fashion.
Boxer made it personal.
"I'm not going to pay a personal price," she said. "My kids are too old and my grandchild is too young. You're not going to pay a particular price, as I understand it, with an immediate family."
Boxer talked about families losing loved ones and soldiers in hospital burn units. "These are the people who pay the price."
Rice said evenly that she understands the sacrifice of service members and families.
"I visit them. I know what they're going through. I talk to their families. I see it. I could never and I can never do anything to replace any of those lost men and women in uniform, or the diplomats, some of whom. ..."
Boxer cut her off.
"Madam Secretary, please," she said. "I know you feel terrible about it. That's not the point. I was making the case as to who pays the price for your decisions."
In the House, lawmakers appeared mindful of Gates' status as the newcomer on the Bush administration's Iraq team and largely avoided the kind of tough questions and pointed comments that senators heaved at Rice.
"We are blessed to have you, Mr. Secretary," the committee chairman, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., said at the outset. "And thank you for making this your very first hearing in the Congress of the United States."
Several others congratulated Gates on his new position.
Gates, sworn in Dec. 18, noted that his testimony came on "the anniversary of the conclusion of my third week in the job."
Some of the toughest comments were directed toward Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"This is the craziest, dumbest plan I've ever seen or heard of in my life," Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, told Pace.