By Julian Pecquet and Daniel Strauss - 12/13/12 08:59 PM EST
President Obama on Thursday accepted Susan Rice's decision to withdraw from consideration to be secretary of State, averting a bitter nomination fight with Republicans that risked bogging down his second-term agenda.
In a letter to Obama notifying him of her decision, Rice said she wanted to spare the White House a heated battle with Senate Republicans, who have criticized her over the administration's handling of the terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Obama had stood steadfastly by his ambassador to the UN over the past three months, calling out Republican senators who criticized her.
But, on Thursday, he finally acknowledged that a bitter partisan fight was not worth having.
“I have every confidence that Susan has limitless capability to serve our country now and in the years to come, and know that I will continue to rely on her as an advisor and friend,” he said in a statement. “While I deeply regret the unfair and misleading attacks on Susan Rice in recent weeks, her decision demonstrates the strength of her character, and an admirable commitment to rise above the politics of the moment to put our national interests first.”
Rice's decision leaves Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) as the favorite to replace Hillary Clinton, who has vowed to step down early next year. Kerry was believed to be in the running for secretary of Defense, but that role now looks likely to go to former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).
Kerry praised Rice in statement Thursday evening.
“I've known and worked closely with Susan Rice not just at the UN, but in my own campaign for President. I've defended her publicly and wouldn't hesitate to do so again because I know her character and I know her commitment,” he said.
“We should all be grateful that she will continue to serve and contribute at the highest level. As someone who has weathered my share of political attacks and understands on a personal level just how difficult politics can be, I've felt for her throughout these last difficult weeks, but I also know that she will continue to serve with great passion and distinction.”
Republicans had signaled strong opposition to Rice's possible nomination, citing her initial explanation for the Benghazi attack, which she said spring from a peaceful protest. The administration later acknowledged it was a planned terrorist attack.
She defended those remarks, saying her statements were not intended to mislead but were based on intelligence reports given to her at the time.
In the aftermath she went to Capitol Hill to sit down with some of her fiercest critics — including Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — but did not win them over.
The two GOP senators released carefully-worded statements about her withdrawal.
"I respect Ambassador Rice’s decision. President Obama has many talented people to choose from to serve as our next Secretary of State," he said in a statement. "When it comes to Benghazi I am determined to find out what happened — before, during, and after the attack. Unfortunately, the White House and other agencies are stonewalling when it comes to providing the relevant information."
McCain’s office had a similar response to Graham.
"Sen. McCain thanks Ambassador Rice for her service to the country and wishes her well," McCain Communications Director Brian Rogers said in a statement. "He will continue to seek all the facts about what happened before, during and after the attack on our consulate in Benghazi that killed four brave Americans."
— This story was last updated at 5:14 p.m.
Read Rice's letter to Obama below:
Susan Rice Letter