Amb. Rice talks with lawmakers at Capitol about fatal Benghazi Consulate attack

Susan Rice is to meet senators on Capitol Hill this week to address their concerns about her role following the fatal attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

The ambassador to the United Nations will talk with at least six senators from both parties on Tuesday and Wednesday, sources say, and will be accompanied by acting CIA Director Michael Morell.

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Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) told The Hill that she, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are having a joint meeting with Rice at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday. And Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is expected to meet with Rice on Wednesday.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who is in line to take the top Republican spot on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next year, said Rice’s office reached out to him within the last week or two. He’s expected to meet with her Wednesday.

“Typically we like to meet with folks after they’re nominated,” he told The Hill. “Usually you don’t sit down with people who may be nominated.”Her visit may suggest that President Obama intends to nominate her as secretary of State despite the risk of a tough fight with Republicans.

Several prominent Republican senators vowed to oppose her, but the president, during a press conference this month, indicated he was prepared to fight. Rice is a close Obama ally who served as his senior foreign policy adviser in the 2008 campaign and is widely believed to be favorite for the State Department job. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) is considered another leading contender.

“Should I choose, if I think that she would be the best person to serve America in the capacity of the State Department, then I will nominate her,” Obama said. “That’s not a determination that I’ve made yet.”

Republicans’ ire against Rice has focused on her statements on national television five days after the Sept. 11 attack, in which she linked it to a peaceful protest that spun out of control. U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died in the attack, which the administration has since called an act of terrorism.

Ayotte said that “one of the top questions is we want to know what she relied upon on going on each Sunday show.”

She noted that “I have said specifically that I would hold her nomination until we get sufficient answers, and after getting the information, then I would make a judgment.”

Republicans initially latched onto the attack as a potent symbol of what they described as Obama’s foreign-policy shortcomings. Since the election, however, the issue has largely faded from view, as Congress refocuses its attention on the looming fiscal cliff.

Obama’s invitation to “blame me” for the Benghazi shortcomings — coupled with recent revelations that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence cut out references to “al Qaeda” and “terrorism” from Rice’s talking points — has taken some of the heat off her.

McCain, who sparked Obama’s defiance earlier this month when he called Rice “incompetent” and vowed to block her nomination, appeared to acknowledge as much over the weekend when he promised her a fair hearing.

“I’d give everyone the benefit of explaining their position and the actions that they took,” McCain told “Fox News Sunday” when asked if he’d be open to reversing his position. “I’d be glad to have the opportunity to discuss these issues with her.”

The apparent shift didn’t escape the White House’s attention.

“I certainly saw those comments and appreciate them,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said at Monday’s briefing. Carney said he had no new information to share about nominations, however.

McCain’s apparent reversal could signal an acknowledgement that picking a fight over a well-respected African-American woman at a time when Republicans are polling dismally with minorities could backfire. Party-line opposition to Rice will inevitably draw allegations of racial bias, just like Democrats’ vote against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas did 20 years ago, and some Democrats have already begun laying the groundwork for those attacks.

“You know, these are code words,” Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) told CNN last week when asked directly if he thought Republican criticism of Rice as “incompetent” was racist or sexist. “These kinds of terms that those of us — especially those of us who were grown and raised in the South — we’ve been hearing these little words and phrases all of our lives, and we get insulted by them.”

Republican lawmakers, with the help of conservative media, have successfully tarnished Rice in the eyes of many Americans, however, making it difficult for them to shift their stance and vote for her nomination.

“Reporters who repeat the line that ‘McCain softens on Susan Rice’ are over-interpreting 1 line & under estimating millions of conservatives [sic],” former Mitt Romney spokesman Richard Grenell warned on Twitter on Monday.

— Ben Geman contributed.

— This story was published on Nov. 26 at 4:52 p.m. and has been updated.