Tuesday's extended debate over the nomination of Condoleezza Rice to be secretary of State marks the first warning shot of the 109th Congress.
No one in official Washington doubts that Dr. Rice, who is widely respected on both sides of the aisle, will be confirmed in a vote expected on Wednesday. The delay signals that Senate Democrats, while returning in fewer numbers, still have the clout to derail administration plans, or at least to insist that their concerns be given a fair hearing.
Stung by charges of obstructionism in the first Bush term, Democrats had been expected to tread lightly in the early days of a new Bush administration. And, unlike federal judicial nominations, cabinet appointments are widely viewed as the president's prerogative. That they chose to make a first stand on the Rice nomination sets a tone for other early flashpoints, such as the budget, Social Security, and the federal courts.
"It's a sign of the Democrats getting their footing back ... that they're getting feisty and confident right off the bat. It wasn't obvious that would happen," says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.
Senate GOP leaders dubbed the move to delay expected confirmation last week "partisan, negative, and obstructionist."
"If this is the kind of comity we can expect for the rest of the session, we're not off to a good start," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona, after the president's inauguration on Thursday.
Most of the Democrats scheduled to speak Monday on the Rice nomination opposed the war, including Sens. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Barbara Boxer of California, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Carl Levin of Michigan, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, and Jon Corzine of New Jersey.
But even among Republicans and Democrats who supported the war, there are deepening concerns about the sweeping mandate the Bush administration is claiming for its second term, especially on its conduct of the war in Iraq. Some are using the Rice confirmation as the first venue in the new Congress to explore those concerns.
"Many senators of both parties were worried when they read that Bush believes that the election was an endorsement of of his Iraq policy. He won in spite of the situation in Iraq," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.
Sen. Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said last week that the US is now "more alone in the world than we've been in any time in recent memory" and that the time for diplomacy is "long overdue." Senator Kerry pressed Rice to acknowledge mistakes in the conduct of the war, especially the failure to anticipate the level of resistance. This month's elections, he said could "provide a greater capacity for civil war than there is today, absent the right steps."
The most aggressive line of questioning came from Senator Boxer, who challenged Rice on contradictions between her statements going into the war and subsequent events, especially her raising the prospect of "a mushroom cloud" when characterizing the threat from Iraq. Last week, US officials announced they were ending the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. None have been found.
But for foreign policy analysts, one of the most provocative lines came from freshman Sen. Barack Obama, who challenged Rice to explain why the doctrine we present to the world explaining military action does not also extend to nations like Sudan, where there's a genocide taking place.
Rice said it's "very difficult to have a specific definition of when you use force and when you do not."
The exchange mirrors debate that has arisen from Bush's inaugural address, in which he set a goal of ending tyranny and spreading freedom worldwide.
"If we were right to intervene in Iraq to overcome a tyrant, why would we not consider intervening in Sudan, which is guilty of genocide and has its own relations with Bin Laden and Al Qaeda?" asks P.J. Crowley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who worked under President Clinton's national security adviser.
The vote to confirm Rice had been expected last Thursday, as the inaugural parade headed down Pennsylvania Avenue. It was postponed after Democrats said they needed more time to debate the nomination. "It's understandable, reasonable, and fulfilling of our constitutional responsibility," said Senator Kennedy.
But Senate Republicans say the tougher stance could be a harbinger of much tougher fights to come. "The fights on judicial nominations are brutal, just awful. We're going to have to use the constitutional option sooner or later," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, referring to the possibility of changing Senate rules to make approval of judicial nominations easier.
The change, now dubbed the "nuclear option," would allow a simple majority of the Senate to end a filibuster, where now 60 votes are needed. Democrats have said they'd respond by shutting down the Senate with procedural maneuvers of their own.