President Bush's nominee to succeed Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, is expected to be easily confirmed by the U.S. Senate. But she is likely to face some tough questioning about the administration's rationale for going to war with Iraq.
Ms. Rice appears before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for confirmation hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday. Opposition Democrats are expected to sharply question her about intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq.
Senator Ted Kennedy, although not a member of the panel, has been a vocal critic of the administration's Iraq policy.
"I think she will have questions about her role in terms of what was represented to the American people in the buildup to the Iraq war," he said.
Ms. Rice often made President Bush's case for war on nationally televised Sunday news discussion shows, in the run-up to the invasion. Six months before the operation began, she warned about the potential for Saddam Hussein to deploy a nuclear weapon, saying the administration did not want, "the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
Lawmakers may also question Ms. Rice about a statement made by President Bush in his 2002 State of the Union speech that Iraq had sought uranium from Africa. The Central Intelligence Agency had found no evidence for that assertion and warned the National Security Council that the statement should not be used.
Ms. Rice's deputy, Stephen Hadley, took responsibility for including that sentence in the speech. Mr. Bush has appointed Mr. Hadley to succeed Ms. Rice as National Security Adviser, a post that does not require confirmation.
Although the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction was the key reason cited by the administration for going to war, no such weapons have been found, and the U.S. search for such stockpiles has formally ended.
In recent weeks, some members of the Foreign Relations Committee have traveled to Iraq to meet with U.S. military authorities and troops, as well as Iraqi officials. Ms. Rice can expect questions about U.S. plans for Iraq after elections there later this month.
Iraq is not likely to be the only issue Ms. Rice will be questioned about. Other topics may include the nuclear threat posed by both North Korea and Iran, and prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the wake of the election of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian Authority President.
The Foreign Relations Committee also is particularly worried about how America is perceived overseas, and members are likely to ask Ms. Rice how she plans to improve the country's image, especially in the Muslim world.
Ms. Rice has enjoyed a close relationship with President Bush. But some observers on Capitol Hill are concerned Mr. Bush may not be well served by having a loyal confidante head the State Department, fearing that dissenting views may be silenced.
Outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell was often at odds with the White House and the Pentagon on such matters as when to go to war with Iraq, how best to confront North Korea's nuclear weapons program, and how to reach out to Europe.
Senators may question Ms. Rice as to whether she can be an independent voice on foreign policy.
Ms. Rice will likely get a polite and respectful reception. Although she will probably face some difficult questions, she is expected to easily gain confirmation as Secretary of State.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, is not on the Foreign Relations Committee, but he will be voting in favor of Ms. Rice's confirmation as a member of the full Senate.
"I think she will get some tough questions. It is appropriate,” he said. “That is our job. But I cannot imagine a scenario where she would not be confirmed."
The Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, offered a similar assessment on Fox News Sunday shortly after President Bush nominated Ms. Rice in November.
"I think there will be very strong support for Condoleezza Rice,” he noted.
Senator Lugar says he does not see any significant change in the way the Bush administration conducts foreign policy under a Secretary of State Rice.