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 ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat Left laughs off floated changes to 2024 ticket A year into his presidency, Biden is polling at an all-time low MORE, 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.
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 CollinsSusan Margaret Collins'All or nothing' won't bolster American democracy: Reform the filibuster and Electoral Count Act Voting rights, Trump's Big Lie, and Republicans' problem with minorities More than 30 million families to lose child tax credit checks starting this weekend MORE (R-Maine) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerRepublicans, ideology, and demise of the state and local tax deduction Cheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force MORE (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 IsaksonJohnny IsaksonSchumer makes plea for voting bill, filibuster reform in rare Friday session Jan. 6 brings Democrats, Cheneys together — with GOP mostly absent Pelosi leads moment of silence for Jan. 6 with no Republicans except Cheneys MORE (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 KerryJohn KerryA presidential candidate pledge can right the wrongs of an infamous day Equilibrium/Sustainability — Dam failures cap a year of disasters Four environmental fights to watch in 2022 MORE (D-Mass.).
“My preference is that the president nominate somebody who would be easily confirmable,” said Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoMcConnell will run for another term as leader despite Trump's attacks Senate Minority Whip Thune, close McConnell ally, to run for reelection Biden's court picks face fierce GOP opposition MORE (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 McCainJohn Sidney McCainKelly takes under-the-radar approach in Arizona Senate race Voting rights, Trump's Big Lie, and Republicans' problem with minorities Sinema, Manchin curb Biden's agenda MORE (R-Ariz.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamKyrsten Sinema's courage, Washington hypocrisy and the politics of rage Hillicon Valley: Amazon's Alabama union fight — take two McConnell will run for another term as leader despite Trump's attacks MORE (R-S.C.) and Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteBiden's FDA nominee advances through key Senate committee The 10 races that will decide the Senate majority Manchin, Sanders will oppose Biden FDA nominee Califf MORE (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 McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellNAACP president presses senators on voting rights: 'You will decide who defines America' Sununu says he skipped Senate bid to avoid being 'roadblock' to Biden for two years 'All or nothing' won't bolster American democracy: Reform the filibuster and Electoral Count Act MORE (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 ManchinJoe ManchinSenate Democrats eye talking filibuster NAACP president presses senators on voting rights: 'You will decide who defines America' Schumer tees up showdown on voting rights, filibuster MORE (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 TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterDemocrats' filibuster gambit unravels Biden: 'I don't know whether we can get this done' Biden to huddle with Senate Democrats as voting bill on brink of defeat MORE (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 HolderEric Himpton HolderState courts become battlegrounds in redistricting fights New Hampshire Republicans advance map with substantially redrawn districts Michigan redistricting spat exposes competing interests in Democratic coalition MORE 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 VitterDavid Bruce VitterBiden inaugural committee to refund former senator's donation due to foreign agent status Bottom line Lysol, Charmin keep new consumer brand group lobbyist busy during pandemic MORE (R-La.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) opposing her.