Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) speaks to reporters after meeting with Susan… (Jim Lo Scalzo / European…)
WASHINGTON — Susan Rice would seem to have everything going for her: close ties to President Obama, charter membership in the Washington foreign policy establishment, and seasoning after four years as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
But her path to becoming America's top diplomat looks increasingly rocky.
White House officials circulated word three weeks ago that the former Rhodes scholar was Obama's top pick to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton when she steps down next year. But three Republican senators made it clear Tuesday after a supposed fence-mending meeting with Rice that they would turn any confirmation hearing into a gloves-off inquiry on how the administration handled the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.
"The concerns I have today are greater than they were before," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the lawmakers who has faulted Rice for initially portraying the Sept. 11 attack in Libya as a spontaneous protest rather than a calculated terrorist attack. The White House insists Rice relied solely on information provided to her by U.S. intelligence agencies.
Rice, in a statement after the meeting, acknowledged that her initial description of the attack had been wrong, but insisted that she didn't intend to deceive Americans.
"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," her statement said.
Also worrisome to Rice's supporters is the recognition that talk of her nomination has sparked an undercurrent of criticism that the blunt-spoken envoy may not have the finesse to handle the delicate diplomacy of the Middle East and other regions. Former colleagues have shared stories of her fractious relationships in the Clinton and Obama administrations, and even diplomats of some allied countries have reported difficult dealings at the U.N.
Rice retains the strong support of Obama and his close aide Valerie Jarrett. But White House officials are trying to gauge how much damage a prolonged confirmation fight would do at the start of Obama's second term, even as they staunchly defend Rice's record and her abilities.
Rice is "enormously qualified for the position she holds and for the position — for a variety of positions in the foreign policy field if the president were to decide to nominate her for another position," Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters amid repeated questions about her Tuesday.
Carney disputed Republican charges that Rice was less than candid when she appeared on several Sunday TV talk shows five days after the Benghazi attack, a job she was assigned by the White House.
"The focus on — some might say obsession on — comments made on Sunday shows seems to me, and to many, to be misplaced," he added.
Without defections, Democrats would need to pick up only five Republican votes to stop a filibuster of the nomination. But some Senate Democrats are privately expressing reluctance to cast a vote that might not be popular in their home states.
Rice, 48, the daughter of a former governor of the Federal Reserve Board, has degrees from Stanford and Oxford. During the Clinton administration, she served on the National Security Council staff and as an assistant secretary of State for African affairs.
She has been a member of Obama's inner circle since she served as his foreign policy advisor in the 2008 presidential campaign. "No one should underestimate the closeness of this relationship," said one former colleague.
At the U.N., Rice was a leading advocate for U.S. involvement in the Libyan civil war, and a proponent of the troop buildup in Afghanistan. She is viewed in foreign policy circles as an interventionist, someone willing to use U.S. military power when necessary.
Rice burst into the public eye this fall when Republicans seized on her remarks about Benghazi, suggesting she had deliberately sought to hide a terrorist attack before the Nov. 6 election. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said her comments made her "unqualified" to be secretary of State and promised that he and Graham would do "everything in our power" to prevent her from getting the job.
Senate Democrats and White House officials believed most Republicans would not want to pick on an African American woman who is clearly qualified for the job. And Obama, at his first postelection news conference, angrily accused McCain of trying to "besmirch" the reputation of his friend and advisor.
McCain and Graham seemed to back down Sunday, saying they were eager to meet with her. But on Tuesday, the GOP senators again took a hard line. Graham and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) suggested they would put a hold on the nomination, which would suspend Senate consideration, until they get the answers they seek on Benghazi.