US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice is meeting with key lawmakers in what could be her final pitch for their support if she is nominated to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as the next US secretary of state.
The discussions, which began yesterday, will focus on her much-maligned explanations of the attack on the US diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the US ambassador and three other Americans, officials said, but it’s also clearly an audition for the US’ top diplomatic job.
Despite lingering questions over her comments five days after the Benghazi attack, Rice has emerged as the clear front-runner on a short list of candidates to succeed Clinton, with Senator John Kerry seen as her closest alternative. However, despite a softening of Republican opposition to Rice, she still has work to do to ensure that enough Republican senators are willing to back her potential nomination.
Rice’s series of meetings on Capitol Hill this week will therefore be a critical test both for Republicans, who will decide whether they can support her, and the administration, which must gauge whether Rice has enough support to merit a nomination.
According to congressional aides and administration officials, Rice is expected to meet with small groups of lawmakers who will press her on her since-retracted description of the Benghazi attack as the byproduct of an angry protest over a film made in the US ridiculing Islam. She’ll be joined by acting CIA Director Michael Morell in the meetings.
A senior Senate aide said the administration was sounding out moderate Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee such as Senator Bob Corker, who is in line to become the panel’s top Republican next year, and Senator Johnny Isakson. Assessing the prospects for Rice before US President Barack Obama makes any announcement would avoid the embarrassment of a protracted fight with the Senate early in the president’s second term and the possible failure of the nominee.
Rice is scheduled to meet with Senator John McCain, her most vocal critic on Capitol Hill, and Senator Kelly Ayotte. McCain and Ayotte are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
During an interview on Monday, McCain said he would ask Rice “the same questions I’ve been talking about on every talk show in America.” Asked whether he thinks she’s still unfit for secretary of state and what he was hoping for, McCain interrupted and said, “I’m not hoping for anything. She asked to see me and I agreed to see her.”
On television news talk shows the weekend following the attack, which took place on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Rice was given talking points that described the attack as growing out of a spontaneous protest against the film, even though the Obama administration had known for days that it was a militant assault.
Republicans called her nomination doomed, leading to a vigorous defense of her by Obama in his first post-election news conference. Since then, Republican lawmakers have softened their views. McCain, who said earlier this month that would he do everything in his power to scuttle a Rice nomination, said on Sunday that he was willing to hear her out before making a decision.
Senator Jim Inhofe, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had issued a statement highly critical of Rice on the day of Obama’s news conference. He indicated on Monday that perhaps she didn’t know what had transpired in Benghazi on the day of the attack.