In a forceful defense of his ambassador to the United Nations, President Obama on Wednesday invited GOP critics of Susan Rice to “go after me.”
Obama vowed to push forward with Rice’s nomination for secretary of State if he decides she’s the best choice, and went after Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) by name for what he said were “outrageous” attacks designed to “besmirch” her reputation.
“If Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham and others want to go after somebody? They should go after me. And I’m happy to have that discussion with them,” Obama said during the most memorable moment of his Wednesday news conference.
Obama’s attack provoked an immediate response from McCain and Graham, who have faulted Rice for cable television news appearances in which she said the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, arose from a demonstration.
The administration later acknowledged it was a terrorist attack, and Obama on Wednesday said Rice made her television comments in September based on the information she had at the time.
Graham warned the president “will have one hell of a fight” if he tries to win confirmation of Rice as secretary of State.
“That will be his choosing. I don’t want to fight. But I’ve got a conscience too,” Graham said.
McCain said he had always said that “the buck stops” with the president on Benghazi. He called on Wednesday for a select committee to be appointed for an investigation, and said statements by Obama “did not comport with the facts on the ground.”
“We owe the American people and the families of the murdered Americans a full and complete explanation, which for two months the president has failed to deliver,” he said.
The attacks on the two veteran senators were notable because Obama will need to work with both over the next four years on immigration and other issues. While Graham and McCain have been fierce critics of Obama on foreign affairs, they have worked before on bipartisan efforts to change the nation’s immigration laws.
“I want to work with him on the fiscal cliff; I want to work with him on immigration,” said Graham. “I’d like to work with him on other things that we need to do as a nation. But I’m not going to give him a pass here.”
Rice, Obama’s senior foreign policy adviser during the 2008 campaign, is widely believed to be his top choice for the State Department, over Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.).
Several Republicans have singled her out for criticism over the Benghazi attack, which left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead. She became the public face of the administration’s discredited linkage of the attack to a protest over an anti-Islam video.
Rice would likely face a difficult path to winning 60 votes to ward off Senate filibusters of her confirmation.
In addition to Graham and McCain, Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) have said they’d reject Rice, while several others have also raised concerns.
Democrats will hold 53 Senate seats in 2013; the chamber’s two Independents also caucus with the party. That means at least five GOP votes will be needed.
Inhofe on Wednesday said Rice would “not be a fitting replacement” for Hillary Clinton not only because of her Benghazi statement, but also because of her record at the U.N.
“Rice has been the Obama administration’s point person in pursuing liberal causes that threaten U.S. sovereignty,” Inhofe said in a statement Wednesday. “She has also not been an effective diplomat or manager at the U.N., as evidenced by her failure to persuade Russia and China to join the U.S. in reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, stop the bloody civil war in Syria and halt North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”
Obama’s harsh words for Graham and McCain came right after he told reporters his administration was already working on immigration reform.
“My expectation is that we get a bill introduced and we begin the process in Congress very soon after my inauguration,” the president said. “And, in fact, some conversations, I think, are already beginning to take place among senators and congressmen and my staff about what this would look like.”
McCain and Graham have emerged among a handful of Republican leaders on that effort.
McCain and Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told The Hill this week that they’re hopeful bipartisan immigration reform can pass in 2013. And Graham is working with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on a comprehensive immigration reform bill that was tabled two years ago.
Schumer told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that he and Graham were “talking to our colleagues about this right now, and I think we have a darn good chance, using this blueprint, to get something done this year.”
Despite the bad blood over Benghazi, Graham said he was hopeful he could still find a way to work with Obama on other issues.
“I’m 57 years old,” he told The Hill. “I can fight you one day and work with you the next.”
—This story was updated at 8:22 p.m.