UPDATED 4:24 p.m. ET -- President Barack Obama’s possible choice of United Nations envoy Susan Rice to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to be in greater jeopardy Wednesday after one key Republican senator broadened the scope of questions about her record. Another GOP senator implied she was too much of a personal and party loyalist to head the State Department and urged the president to “step back” from the idea of nominating Rice.
Rice went to Capitol Hill Wednesday for a second consecutive day of meetings with skeptical GOP senators, meeting with Susan Collins of Maine and Bob Corker of Tennessee, who is slated to become the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and would have a key role in the confirmation hearing for a secretary of state nominee.
Until Wednesday, Rice had come under Republican fire primarily for her role in speaking for the Obama administration in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
But in comments to reporters after meeting with Rice, Collins expanded the criticism of Rice to include her potential role in protecting the American embassies in Kenya and Somalia that were hit by al Qaida attacks in 1998, when Rice served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
Collins said she was “very troubled by the fact that we seem not to have learned from the 1998 bombings of two of our embassies in Africa at the time when Ambassador Rice was the assistant secretary for African affairs. Those bombings in 1998 resulted in the loss of life of 12 Americans as well as many other foreign nationals.”
She said, “What troubles me so much is the Benghazi attack in many ways echoes the attacks on those embassies in 1998, when Susan Rice was head of the African region for our State Department. In both cases the ambassadors begged for additional security” but she said, as with the Sept. 11 attack on the consulate in Benghazi, those requests were turned down by the State Department.
Collins said that Rice told her “she would have to refresh her memory” of the 1998 events and that she was not directly involved in turning down the request for embassy security in 1998.
But Collins seemed dissatisfied with Rice’s response, saying, “Surely given her position as the assistant secretary for African affairs, she had to be aware of the general threat assessment and of the ambassadors’ repeated requests for more security.”
Collins said that before she could support Rice’s nomination, “I would need to have additional information.”
Collins, the senior Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, is up for re-election in 2014. Obama carried her state in the presidential election with 56 percent of the vote.
After his meeting with Rice, Corker seemed to be sending a plea or a warning to Obama to not pick his U.N. envoy as the next secretary of state.
“I know that at some point I may play a semi-important role in who the next secretary of state may be,” Corker told reporters at the Capitol. “I would just ask the president to step back for a moment and realize that all of us here hold the secretary of state to a very different standard than most Cabinet members.”
Corker said, “We want someone of independence.”
He added that “all of us … can become close to people and have loyal soldiers,” implying that Rice was one of those personal loyalists and therefore wouldn’t be right for the job. It was an echo of his comment Tuesday that “when I hear Susan (Rice) talk, she sounds to me like she'd be a great head of the Democratic National Committee.”
At a meeting at the White House with his Cabinet members, with Rice present, in response to a question from a reporter about how senators were treating Rice, Obama said Wednesday, "Susan Rice is extraordinary. I couldn't be prouder of the job that she's done."
At Obama’s Nov. 14 press conference, after Rice came under fire from Republican senators John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, the president gave a vigorous defense of his U.N. envoy.
“When they go after the U.N. ambassador, apparently because they think she’s an easy target, then they’ve got a problem with me,” he said. “And should I choose, if I think that she would be the best person to serve America in the capacity of the State Department, then I will nominate her.”
McCain, Graham, and Ayotte have all said they’d oppose Rice if Obama nominates her, but the comments Wednesday from Collins and Corker appeared to reflect a growing skepticism in Republican ranks.
When a reporter asked Collins about Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., as a potential secretary of state, she replied, “I think John Kerry would be an excellent appointment and would be easily confirmed by his colleagues.”
This comment added to the apparent GOP support for Kerry.
On Tuesday McCain told Fox News, “John Kerry came within a whisker of being president of the United States. I think works in his favor (as a nominee to be secretary of state). But I would love to hear him make the case. But I don`t have anything in his background like this tragedy in Benghazi that would make me really want to carefully examine the whole situation.”
For a nomination that hasn’t yet happened and may not happen at all, the potential Rice nomination is generating enormous political heat and noise. That’s partly because it’s shaping up as a nose-to-nose test of Obama’s presidential clout and credibility in the aftermath of his Nov. 6 victory. But it’s also partly because the political futures of Collins, Kerry and others could be on the line.