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Rice, Three Others Could be Confirmed Thursday

Despite the likelihood of tough questioning at today’s nomination hearing, Condoleezza Rice is expected to win confirmation by the full Senate on Thursday, making her the second straight secretary of State confirmed on Inauguration Day.

Rice, the national security adviser nominated to run the State Department, tops the list of four nominees that could be voted on after President Bush takes his second oath of office, according to Republican and Democratic aides.

Rice’s apparent glide-path to confirmation contrasts with the still-nettlesome opposition facing Attorney General-designate Alberto Gonzales. Aides in both parties continue to expect that Gonzales’ nomination will be approved, but Senate Democrats will attempt to prolong that fight.

A senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee is expected to object to a vote on Gonzales when the panel convenes to consider his nomination Wednesday, as the minority is allowed to do once. That would delay a committee vote for at least a week.

Democratic aides view early February as the most likely time that a full floor vote on Gonzalez could be held.

An aide to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said that Rice and Margaret Spellings — the nominee for Education secretary and a close ally of Bush’s since his days as Texas governor — will be the GOP’s top nominee priorities on Thursday. “The priorities are Rice and Spelling,” said Amy Call, Frist’s spokeswoman.

Spellings has already been cleared for a floor vote by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, with the panel’s ranking member, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), backing her. Also winning committee approval were Commerce Secretary-designate Carlos Gutierrez and Agriculture Secretary-designate Mike Johanns, making them likely to be voted upon Thursday as long as Democrats don’t demand lengthy floor debates on these comparatively noncontroversial nominations.

Beyond Gonzales, the nominee likely to face the roughest reception is Mike Leavitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency who has been nominated to be secretary of Health and Human Services. That’s because Senate Democrats, particularly Byron Dorgan (N.D.), are furious with Frist for refusing to hold a vote on the reimportation of prescription drugs from Canada — a key issue for Northern-state lawmakers.

When Dorgan had a hold last year on Mark McClellan’s nomination to be administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Frist promised Dorgan he’d get a vote on reimportation — a vow Dorgan said was never honored. Several Democratic aides said last week that they expect Dorgan to put a hold on Leavitt’s nomination until a vote is held or until he is he given an ironclad, time-certain assurance of a reimportation vote. Dorgan’s aides are doing little to quell such speculation.

“He’s got a lot of tools, he intends to use them,” said Bary Pyatt, Dorgan’s spokesman. “He’s not going to lift [his hold] for some sort of verbal promise.”

After Bush’s swearing-in and the ceremonial lunch in Statuary Hall that follows Thursday’s inauguration, the Senate will convene at 3 p.m. to begin holding votes on nominees.

If Rice is confirmed — making her the first black woman ever to lead the State Department — she will follow in the footsteps of outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was one of seven nominees confirmed by voice vote on Inauguration Day 2001. Democrats may demand a roll call vote on Rice, with the debate focusing on her role in shaping policy in advance of the Iraq war.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, released her opening statement Friday for today’s hearing, concluding that Rice’s loyalty to Bush “overwhelmed [her] respect for the truth.”

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