The White House doesn’t need the support of vocal critics like Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte to confirm United Nations ambassador Susan E. Rice, should the president nominate her as secretary of State. But they almost certainly would need the backing of moderates in both parties, and statements by a number of those senators Wednesday made clear that support is in doubt.
Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Bob Corker, R-Tenn. — both swing votes on foreign policy issues — issued downbeat assessments of their meetings with Rice on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
Neither lawmaker took a firm position — as McCain, R-Ariz., Graham, R-S.C., and Ayotte, R-N.H. did Tuesday — on opposing a Rice nomination. But both Collins and Corker expressed grave doubts about the Obama administration’s handling of the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in September and the role Rice played in the response.
Their outlook, shared by other more moderate GOP senators, as well as a refusal by some Senate Democrats to offer their support, points to a steep uphill climb for the White House should the president decide he wants to take on the Hill and nominate Rice, who is believed to be his preferred pick to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Graham and Ayotte confirmed Tuesday after their own meeting with Rice that they would try to block her nomination until they get more answers about the Benghazi attack, which killed the U.S. ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans. Democrats, however, could try to defeat any filibuster of Rice with 60 votes in the Senate, and would only need five Republican votes, in addition to the two independents expected to caucus with them, in next year’s Senate to reach that threshold.
Getting those five votes will be no easy task, however, nor is there any guarantee Democrats will maintain party unity on a Rice nomination. While some Democratic senators, including Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan, have made clear that they think Rice is qualified to be America’s top diplomat, others are reserving judgement.
“I reserve my perspective based on an interview that I’m sure, if she gets nominated, will occur during the confirmation process,” Jon Tester, fresh off a victory in a hotly contested Montana Senate race, said Wednesday.
Another swing state Democrat, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, quickly shifted the subject to another potential candidate. “I don’t know much about it,” he said of the controversy over Rice, “but I can tell you I’m sure [Senate Foreign Relations Chairman] John Kerry is someone I think would be very, very good.”
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., also wasn’t ready to give the U.N. ambassador his endorsement. “I haven’t really looked at Ambassador Rice as a nominee because she isn’t a nominee. When and if she becomes a nominee, then I’ll look at it,”he said.
On the Republican side, the White House is looking at a shrinking pool of swing votes with the departure of New England moderates such as Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts. And Collins, who also falls in that category, gave the administration little reason for optimism Wednesday.