"I don't see, Madame Secretary, how things are getting better. I think things are getting worse. I think they're getting worse in Iraq. I think they're getting worse in Iran," Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., told Rice as she appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Rice also had a tense exchange with moderate Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., over the pace of progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace and the implications of the Hamas victory in Palestinian legislative elections last month.
Typically soft-spoken, Chafee tersely questioned whether the United States could have prevented Hamas from coming to power. "Opportunities missed," Chafee lamented after rattling off a list. "Now we have a very, very disastrous situation of a terrorist organization winning elections."
Rice said she agrees it's a difficult moment for the peace process, but responded: "I don't think the United States of America is responsible for the election of Hamas. No I don't."
"If Hamas will take the signals being given it by the international community as to what it will take to govern, it could, in fact, be a more positive development," Rice added.
Though the moderate Chafee and Hagel, a frequent GOP maverick, are less conservative than many of their Republican colleagues, their criticism underscored a widespread frustration in Congress with the difficult problems the United States is facing across the Middle East.
Rice tried to take the offensive by announcing an administration request for $75 million this year to build democracy in Iran, saying the United States must support Iranians who are seeking freedoms under what she called a radical regime.
The United States and its European allies are confronting Iran over its nuclear program. But Tehran has remained defiant and said this week that it is resuming small-scale uranium enrichment, which many countries fear could be an early step toward production of fuel for a nuclear bomb.
"They have now crossed a point where they are in open defiance of the international community," Rice said.
She declined to detail what punishment the United States is pursuing, although she did acknowledge that the United States has analyzed the impact of oil sanctions on Iran as part of a broad review of all available tools and has a "menu of options" available.