Susan Rice’s hopes dim after rocky meeting with Senate Republicans

Susan Rice’s chances of winning confirmation as secretary of State dimmed Tuesday after she failed to win over her sharpest Republican critics.

GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), John McCain (Ariz.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) exited a Capitol Hill meeting with Rice saying they remained troubled about comments the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations made days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. 

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“Bottom line, I’m more disturbed now than I was before [by] the 16 September explanation about how four Americans died in Benghazi, Libya, by Ambassador Rice,” Graham said following the closed-door briefing also attended by acting CIA Director Michael Morell. 

 Other Republicans said Rice might survive a Foreign Relations Committee vote on her nomination, but expressed doubt she could win confirmation from the entire Senate. 

“I suspect she could be approved by the committee,” said Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), a member of the panel who said he’d vote against Rice if Obama nominates her to succeed Hillary Clinton. “It would be another issue when she got to the floor, obviously.”

Democrats stood by Rice but acknowledged they’re not sure she could get the 60 votes she needs, even after their party picked up two more seats, for a total of 55, earlier this month.

Rice’s outlook “depends on her visitation schedule today and how successful she’s been,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the Senate Democrats’ vote counter. He said he didn’t know if he could corral 60 votes if she gets the nomination.

“I’ll try,” he said. “It’s up to the president.”

Rice has been seen as a front-runner to replace Clinton, and at a press conference earlier this month, Obama appeared to be itching for a fight with Republicans over her potential nomination. 

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who had suggested Monday that Rice might have been “thrown under the bus” by the administration, reverted to his earlier stance that she was “unfit” for the post.

“Yesterday, it seemed possible that Susan Rice had been unwittingly used by the Obama administration to misrepresent to the American people what really happened in Benghazi,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “After her meeting today on Capitol Hill with some of my colleagues, it is now clear that she willingly mislead [sic] the American public five different times in the days after the attack.”

The administration had hoped by visiting Capitol Hill,  Rice could convince Republicans she did not intentionally mislead anybody when she publicly linked the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi to a protest gone wrong. 

But the three Republicans who met with Rice said she should not have said what she said on television about the attacks, given evidence that suggested the consulate had been targeted by terrorists. 

“We are significantly troubled by many of the answers that we got and some that we didn’t get concerning some of the evidence that was overwhelming leading up to the attack on our consulate,” McCain said. 

Like Graham, Ayotte said she was “more troubled today” after the meeting with Rice and Morell. She suggested Rice should have asked more questions of those giving her talking points for her television appearances. 

“When you’re in a position where you’re ambassador to the United Nations, you go well beyond unclassified talking points in your daily preparation and responsibilities for that job,” Ayotte said. “And that’s troubling to me as well, why she wouldn’t have asked” more questions.

In a statement following Tuesday’s meeting, Rice acknowledged “there was no protest or demonstration” in Benghazi. She reiterated that she had relied on faulty briefing notes prepared by the intelligence community.

“We explained that the talking points provided by the intelligence community, and the initial assessment upon which they were based, were incorrect in a key respect: There was no protest or demonstration in Benghazi,” Rice said. “While we certainly wish that we had had perfect information just days after the terrorist attack, as is often the case, the intelligence assessment has evolved.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday defended Rice and accused the Republican trio of having an “obsession” with her.

“There are no unanswered questions about Ambassador Rice’s appearance on Sunday shows,” Carney said. “Those questions have been answered.”

Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans died in the attack, which the administration has since called an act of terrorism.

The three senators said they could yet change their minds about Rice. 

Yet given pressure from grassroots conservatives and House Republicans — almost 100 House members wrote to President Obama last week accusing Rice of misleading the public — it might be difficult for any of them to shift gears. 

Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), who’s in line to become the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee next year, said Rice had displayed insufficient independence from the administration. 

“She always reminds me of somebody who’s had every drop of Kool-Aid,” Corker said. “When I hear Susan talk, she sounds to me like she’d be a great head of the Democratic National Committee.”

Corker is expected to meet with Rice on Wednesday and said he hasn’t ruled out voting for her.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a definite “no” vote, predicted that “if she is nominated she will be the secretary of State that has the most negative votes probably since 1825.” 

Barrasso’s remark is an oblique reference to Democratic opposition to Condoleezza Rice. George W. Bush’s second secretary of State received 13 “no” votes in 2005 because of her statements on Iraq — the most since Henry Clay almost two centuries earlier.

Barrasso said that vote will negate any Democratic effort to portray Republican opposition to Rice as motivated by gender or racial bias.

“Were there drawbacks when Ted Kennedy [D-Mass.] led the charge against Condoleezza Rice?” he said. “When Sen. Dick Durbin voted against her, when Barbara Boxer [D-Calif.] voted against her, when Jack Reed of Rhode Island voted against her?”

Rice did manage to convince Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), with whom she met Tuesday afternoon. But Lieberman, a close ally of Graham and McCain, is retiring at the end of this session of Congress.

“To me, based on her public record and public service, barring some evidence to the contrary, I think she’s answered the questions that I have about why she said the things she did,” he said. Lieberman said he believed that “she told the truth to the best of her knowledge” and was under “no political influence from the White House.”

He said she’d also expressed regret for saying on the Sunday shows that al Qaeda had been “decimated.” 

“She said to me that she wished she had said that core al Qaeda [located] in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated,” Lieberman said. “Obviously, she’s aware that al Qaeda-related groups are still active and lethal.”