Rice's Efforts To Win Over Critics Fall Flat

She hasn't even been nominated yet to become the next secretary of state, but Susan Rice, the Obama administration's ambassador to the U.N., has been making the rounds on Capitol Hill to try to drum up support. She's under fire from leading Republicans for the way she described the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and many of the Republicans she's been meeting have come away unimpressed by her explanations.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here in Washington, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice has been on Capitol Hill this week trying to drum up support for a nomination she doesn't yet have. She's hoping to become secretary of state, but so far it's not looking good. Rice is under fire from Republicans for what she said on Sunday talk shows, about the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya in September.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: For two days, Ambassador Susan Rice tried to win over her critics, insisting that she did not try to mislead the American people about Benghazi; but was relying on talking points given to her by the intelligence community. Her efforts seem to be backfiring, though. Even a moderate Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, came away unimpressed.

SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS REPUBLICAN, MAINE: I would need to have additional information before I could support her nomination.

KELEMEN: Collins is adding a new wrinkle to the critique of Susan Rice. She is not only holding the U.N. ambassador to account for downplaying al-Qaida's link to the attack in Libya. The Maine Republican also points out that Rice was in the State Department during the deadly bombings at the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

MAINE: And what troubles me so much is that 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.

KELEMEN: Another Republican senator, Bob Corker of Tennessee, spent an hour and a half with Rice to talk about his concerns. He calls Benghazi a tawdry affair, and says he's disappointed with everyone associated with it, including the intelligence community, which drew up Rice's talking points.

SENATOR BOB CORKER: I would just ask that the president step back away from all the buzz around this particular situation, and take a deep breath and decide who is the best secretary of state for our country at this time, when we have so many issues to deal with in the Middle East and other places.

KELEMEN: He didn't make any suggestions, though Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts is said to be another leading contenders. Collins of Maine says Kerry, who is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would be as she put it: An excellent choice and would sail through a confirmation process.

The politics surrounding this baffles Aaron David Miller, vice president of the Woodrow Wilson Center.

AARON DAVID MILLER: Is it an effort to lay down a marker, in the wake of a second term victory to an empowered president that we can't be taken for granted? Is this an effort on the part of the Republicans to force Obama toward another choice, John Kerry, which would then open up another seat? I find some of this stuff not credible and I'm searching for a real explanation.

KELEMEN: Miller, who advised six secretaries of state, says he's never seen anything like this before. And he doubts President Obama will back down from a fight over a key national security position.

MILLER: Its no way to get started, in terms of image and credibility abroad; backing down in response to political pressures, because you were not prepared to fight hard enough for a secretary of state that you clearly have signaled is your first choice. And I think the president has done that.

KELEMEN: And President Obama did so again at his latest Cabinet meeting.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Susan Rice is extraordinary. I couldn't be prouder of the job that she's done at USUN.

KELEMEN: Leading Senate Democrats are also rallying around her. They will have a 55-45 advantage in the next Congress. Rice would need 60 votes to get confirmed. Very few secretaries of state have faced any opposition in past Senate votes.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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