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Obama Talks Tough to Rice Critics

McCain, Graham, Ayotte return fire, vowing nomination showdown

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
Graham has been a vocal critic of the Obama administrations handling of the Benghazi attack that killed four Americans.

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 Obamas 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 whatevers necessary to block a Rice nomination.

When they go after the U.N. ambassador, apparently because they think shes an easy target, then theyve 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.

Obamas 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 Romneys attacks on his handling of Libya.

Obamas 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 Obamas 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 its not clear if national security adviser Tom Donilon will stay on or if hell 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.

We will do whatevers necessary to block the nomination as far as Susan Rice is concerned, McCain said at a press conference with GOP colleagues Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

The three Armed Services Committee members have been among the most vocal critics of the Obama administrations handling of the Benghazi attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. And they consider Rice among those officials responsible for the administrations confused response to the assault and explanation of its causes.

McCain, Graham and Ayotte lambasted Rice in particular as untrustworthy for her statements on national television five days after the attack. She had said that it appeared to be the result of a spontaneous uprising prompted by an anti-Muslim video.

Rices comments were based on the latest intelligence reports provided to members of the administration and Congress, but the three Republican lawmakers maintained that they conflicted with reality.

How could she say, five days later, definitively, that theres no evidence of a coordinated attack when theres a ream of evidence? Graham asked. Her assessment, he said, was so disconnected from reality, I dont trust her. And the reason I dont trust her is I think she knew better, and if she didnt know better, she shouldnt be the voice of America.

Obama retorted that if the senators wanted to attack someone over Benghazi, then they should go after me.

That prompted its own reply from McCain and Graham.

Mr. President, dont think for one minute I dont hold you ultimately responsible for Benghazi, Graham said. But he added, Given what I know now, I have no intention of promoting anyone who is up to their eyeballs in the Benghazi debacle.

For some Republicans, the opposition to Rice goes beyond the Benghazi incident, which has reaffirmed their belief that she is too political and too much of an Obama acolyte to be named Americas top diplomat.

Im not so sure shes the strongest advocate, Graham added. I think shes more of a political operative than she is anything else when it comes to Benghazi.

Graham also criticized Rices performance at the United Nations, something Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, who is expected to become the top Republican on the Armed Services panel, raised in his own statement Wednesday.

While at the United Nations, Rice has been the Obama administrations point person in pursuing liberal causes that threaten U.S. sovereignty, he said. Like the White House, Senate Democrats were quick to back up Rice on Wednesday, accusing Republicans of blowing her comments on Benghazi out of proportion.

If the president should nominate her, I dont believe that should be any reason to stop her, agreed Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill. Sure, ask the hard questions where did you get that information and why did you say this? but to disqualify her based on a Meet the Press appearance, Durbin said. I mean, to me, it goes way too far.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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