Republican split on Rice could yield her enough votes if nominated for State

Susan Rice’s bridge-building visit to Capitol Hill this week left Republicans divided on her possible nomination as secretary of State.

While some Republicans appear outright opposed to Rice replacing Hillary Clinton, there are enough GOP senators who are open to voting for her. Should President Obama nominate her, Rice would need only a handful of GOP votes to overcome a filibuster if all Democrats back her.

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After failing to win over a trio of hawkish senators on Tuesday, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations met with two centrist Republicans on Wednesday. Both Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) left their meetings with her saying they'd need more information before deciding whether they could support her.

“There are many different players in this and there's much yet to be learned,” said Collins, who introduced Rice at her confirmation hearing three years ago because of her family ties to Maine. “So I think it would be premature for me to reach that judgment now.”

Corker, who is poised to become the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appeared to walk back his Tuesday statement that Rice would make a better chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.



“In spite of the comments that I've made,” he said Wednesday, “I've said from day one whoever the nominee ends up being, obviously, I'm going to give that person a full hearing, as I always do."


Appearing on CNN Wednesday, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) called Rice a “very smart, very intelligent woman” who's been “upfront,” adding that “you don't want to shoot the messenger.”

Republicans say they're troubled by Rice's comments, made on national television on Sept. 16, in which she inaccurately linked the attack five days earlier on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, to a peaceful protest gone awry. Four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, died in the attack.

“I continue to be troubled by the fact that the U.N. ambassador decided to play what was essentially a political role at the height of a contentious presidential election campaign by agreeing to go on the Sunday shows to present the administration's position,” Collins said.

Obama, for his part, stood by his ambassador on Wednesday despite her somewhat rocky reception on Capitol Hill. She is still considered the leading contender to replace Clinton, in part because of her close ties to the president, including serving as his senior foreign policy adviser during the 2008 campaign.

“Susan Rice is extraordinary,” Obama told reporters before Wednesday's Cabinet meeting, prompting the whole room to erupt in applause. “I couldn't be prouder of the job she's done.”

Privately, some Republicans say they'd prefer to avoid a bitter political fight over Rice, an African-American woman who is viewed as qualified and competent. Some Republicans on Capitol Hill have sought to dissuade Obama from nominating her by raising doubts about her ability to garner the necessary 60 votes and suggesting there are less divisive candidates available, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.).

“My preference is that the president nominate somebody who would be easily confirmable,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who has vowed to oppose Rice's nomination. “I think that's John Kerry.”

Others have avoided getting boxed in, in case Obama goes ahead and nominates her.

Speaking to reporters after his meeting with Rice, Corker urged the president to “take a deep breath and to nominate the person that he really believes is the very best person to be secretary of State for our country, regardless of the relationship.” He denied that he was signaling to the president to nominate someone else, but said the focus on Rice has prevented lawmakers and the administration from learning the lessons of the deadly attacks.

Rice's potential nomination, Corker told The Hill, “has created a rabbit trail that has kept us from really focusing on the larger issues of how we handle expeditionary efforts like this in places that the host country doesn't control and militias do.”

Opposition to Rice has been led by the trio of Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), with whom Rice met on Tuesday. They have not categorically ruled out voting for her if she's nominated, but said they were “more troubled” after their meeting with her than before.

Regardless, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has not made Rice a top priority. That is an early signal that the GOP conference will not go to the mat to thwart a Rice nomination.

The administration has sought to exploit potential fissures among Republicans, notably by having Rice brief Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) even though he is retiring. Lieberman has been a longtime ally of Sens. McCain and Graham on defense issues and works closely with Collins, the ranking member on his Homeland Security Committee.

“I think she’s answered the questions that I have about why she said the things she did,” he said Tuesday.

Centrist Democrats from battleground states are being cautious.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told The Hill on Tuesday that he is undecided on Rice but that Kerry would make a “very, very attractive candidate.” 

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) declined to jump to her defense when pressed on Wednesday: “I don't know her; to my knowledge, I can't remember meeting her. I would have to go through the interview process with her. I'd give her a fair shake.”

Other controversial nominations have successfully moved through the Senate. Attorney General Eric Holder received 75 votes and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner got 60, including yes votes from Corker and Graham. 

Clinton was confirmed 94-2, with Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) opposing her.