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An unusually personal spat between Senate Republicans and President Barack Obama over U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice broke into open view Wednesday, setting up what could be a protracted power struggle if Obama decides to nominate her for secretary of State.
Newly assertive after winning re-election, Obama said it was “outrageous” for GOP senators to attack Rice over the handling of the September attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The episode casts new uncertainty over the shape of Obama’s national security team going into his second term, only compounded by the unexpected resignation of David H. Petraeus from the CIA.
Obama was defiant after Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Armed Services panel, vowed Wednesday to do “whatever’s necessary” to block a Rice nomination.
“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,” Obama said at his first press conference since the election. “If I think that she would be the best person to serve America in the capacity at the State Department, then I will nominate her.”
Obama’s remarks appeared to signal that, freed of the political freight of needing to court voters, he will take a firmer tone on national security issues in his second term. In some ways, that shift began during the campaign in the second debate with GOP candidate Mitt Romney, when Obama pushed back hard on Romney’s attacks on his handling of Libya.
Obama’s decision to stand up to congressional Republicans, at least rhetorically, could foreshadow a willingness to take to Congress the fight over issues such as defense spending levels, Iran sanctions and aid to Arab Spring countries.
An early sign of Obama’s resolve would be if he decides to nominate Rice to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has long made clear she plans to leave at the end of his first term. The White House will also likely need to find a replacement next year for Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who is not expected to stay long in a second term. And it’s not clear if national security adviser Tom Donilon will stay on or if he’ll be tapped for another post.
Obama certainly would be setting up a fight by picking Rice over someone like Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., who has also been getting some secretary-of- State buzz and would be less controversial on the Hill.