KWAME HOLMAN: The White House fully expected Condoleezza Rice to be on the job by now. It believed the full Senate was ready to confirm her nomination as secretary of state last Thursday, immediately following the president's inauguration ceremony at the Capitol.
Rice already had endured a day and a half of sharp questioning by Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee, and only California's Barbara Boxer and Massachusetts' John Kerry came away opposed to her confirmation.
SEN. RICHARD LUGAR R-IN: The ayes are 16; the nays are two --
KWAME HOLMAN: However, several Democrats not on the committee argued for a chance to weigh in as well, particularly about how Rice used her role as national security advisor to bolster support for the president's Iraq policies before and after the war. This was Minority Leader Harry Reid yesterday.
SEN. HARRY REID: Sure, we won the war, but the peace we're losing badly. Is that poor management? I think so.
KWAME HOLMAN: Majority Leader Bill Frist relented, setting aside nine hours today for the Senate's Republicans and Democrats to debate the Rice nomination.
SEN. BILL FRIST: Is it necessary to spend nine hours today. I don't personally think so, but it's the right of any one United States senator, and -- we respect that, and we'll move on.
SPOKESPERSON: Department of State Condoleezza Rice of California to be secretary.
KWAME HOLMAN: Late this morning, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar triggered the start of the nine-hour debate, giving Rice his unqualified support.
SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: American credibility in the world, progress in the war on terrorism and our relationship with our allies will greatly be affected by the secretary of state's actions and the effectiveness of the State Department in the coming years. Dr. Rice is highly qualified to meet those challenges.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts was the first Democrat to stand, and he charged Rice did not deserve to be secretary of state because she had distorted intelligence and withheld information prior to the war in Iraq.
SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY: Had Dr. Rice and others in the administration shared all the information, it might have changed the course of history. We might have discovered there were no weapons of mass destruction.
The rush to war might have been stopped. We would have stayed focused on the real threat, kept faith with our allies and would be safer today.
KWAME HOLMAN: Minnesota Democrat Mark Dayton followed and said the Bush administration has been engaged in a pattern of lying to Congress and to the American people.
SEN. MARK DAYTON: It's wrong, it's immoral, it's un-American and it has to stop. It stops by not promoting top administration officials who engaged in the practice, who have been instrumental in deceiving Congress and the American people. And regrettably, that includes Dr. Rice.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Michigan Democrat Carl Levin concluded his time on the floor by stating a vote in favor of Condoleezza Rice would be an endorsement of the Bush administration's prewar strategy.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: Voting to confirm Dr. Rice as secretary of state would be a stamp of approval for her participation in the distortions and exaggerations of intelligence that the administration used before it initiated the war in Iraq and the hubris which led to the administration's inexcusable failure to plan and prepare for the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein with tragic and ongoing consequences.
KWAME HOLMAN: Republicans also took their turns in defense of Condoleezza Rice. Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, the majority's second-in-command, responded to the Democrats' attempt to link Rice's nomination to the Iraq war.
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: The liberation of Iraq was the right thing to do. We removed a tyrant who had both the means and the motives to attack America or her interests. I urge my colleagues, who focus only on the setbacks, mistakes or tragedies of operation Iraqi Freedom, to take the long view.
If there'd been as many cameras at Omaha Beach on D-Day as there are in this chamber today, Gen. Eisenhower would have been fired before sunset. War is messy, but history tells us we must see our fights through to the end. The goal of spreading peace and freedom in the Middle East is too important to suffer hypercritical, politicized attacks.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Virginia's George Allen urged those opposed to Rice because of the war to move on.
SEN. GEORGE ALLEN: Try to be positive in your ideas of where we need to go in the future rather than just carping and sniping on about decisions that were made in the past.
And I really don't see any value in attacking Dr. Rice personally or inhibiting her ability to bring our allies along, onboard whether they were in every aspect of the military action in Iraq or not.
KWAME HOLMAN: Connecticut's Joseph Lieberman was one of three Democrats to stand and announce support for Condoleezza Rice. The others were California's Diane Feinstein and Colorado freshman Ken Salazar, who did so without endorsing the president's policies in Iraq.
SEN. KEN SALAZAR: To succeed in Iraq and elsewhere in the world in what is a global war on terror, we need to heed the lessons learned from the past years. We need to be sure our intelligence is sound before we commit our troops, ensure our troops are prepared and ensure our citizens are fully informed.
Educated as she was in Denver, I am confident that Dr. Condoleezza Rice took to heart the candor and straight talk that we value in the West. That candor and straight talk will be important attributes for her to employ as she becomes secretary of state. I yield the floor.
KWAME HOLMAN: Several senators remained in the chamber this evening to continue the debate on Condoleezza Rice. All indications point to a strong vote in favor of her confirmation when members return tomorrow morning.