Susan Rice, ambassador to the United Nations, is a potential nominee for… (Bebeto Matthews, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — With his fiery defense of his ambassador to the United Nations, President Obama appears to have committed himself to nominating Susan Rice to be secretary of State and making her confirmation fight a test of wills with Senate Republicans, congressional aides and Democratic strategists said Thursday.
These Democratic insiders said that by defending Rice on Wednesday against what he called "outrageous" GOP criticism for her comments on the deadly militant attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, Obama was betting on a confirmation victory that would deter Republicans from challenging nominations as often as they did in his first term.
Though a handful of Republican members have already committed to fighting a Rice nomination, many others would be reluctant to be seen as opposing Obama's selection, especially since she is a well-qualified black woman, these Democrats contend.
The public "is going to think they're going way too far," said Jim Manley, longtime aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
A top Democratic strategist said that after an election that showed a lack of minority support for Republicans, "a high-profile fight over a well-qualified African American women is exactly the optic the GOP does not need."
As time passes, "smart people in the party are going to realize that," added the strategist, who is knowledgeable about White House thinking.
Obama said during a White House news conference Wednesday that Rice had "nothing to do" with the handling of the Benghazi attacks, and that her comments on Sept. 16 were based on intelligence she had been given. "To besmirch her reputation is outrageous," he said.
Obama insisted he had not yet made a final decision on whether to choose Rice. But the Democratic observers said it would be difficult now for Obama to choose another candidate, because it would signal weakness in an opening tangle with a Senate Republican caucus that appears eager to challenge him.
Democrats and their allies will hold 55 seats in the new term, so they will need to pick up only five more votes to halt any Republican filibuster.
Administration officials said they were confident that Rice would emerge looking good from any close analysis of her performance on Benghazi.
Republicans have faulted her for telling TV interviewers on Sunday talk shows Sept. 16 that the attackers were motivated by anger over a U.S.-made film that defamed the prophet Muhammad, when in fact they were Islamist militants carrying out a terrorist strike.
But Rice's comments were prepared for her by other U.S. officials, based on information considered accurate by some officials at the time, administration officials say.
Still, a confirmation win, while an important symbolic victory, would not come without costs. As the top diplomat, Rice would be likely to face sharper resistance in the Senate on State Department budgets, treaties and other issues.
In contrast, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the current secretary, is a former senator who has had a relatively smooth ride from her onetime colleagues.
Though the administration seems to be calculating that a fight could work to its advantage, some Senate Republicans seem to have the view that it could be a winner for them as well, with their base and the broader public.
Republican senators, including John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), are eager for "Watergate-style" hearings on Benghazi and believe the nomination of Rice can be a way to generate more publicity. They believe the inquiry will show major security lapses by the administration.