WASHINGTON — U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice is meeting with key lawmakers in what could be her final pitch for their support if she is nominated to be the next secretary of state.
The discussions, beginning Tuesday, will focus on her much-maligned explanations of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, officials said, but she's also clearly auditioning for America's top diplomatic job.
Despite lingering questions over her comments five days after the Benghazi attack, Rice has emerged as the front-runner on a short list of candidates to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton, with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., seen as her closest alternative. But despite a softening of Republican opposition to Rice, she still has work to do to ensure that enough GOP senators are willing to back her potential nomination.
Rice's series of meetings on Capitol Hill this week will therefore be a critical test both for Republicans, who will decide whether they can support her, and the administration, which must gauge whether Rice has enough support to merit a nomination. According to congressional aides and administration officials, Rice is expected to meet with small groups of lawmakers who will press her on her since-retracted description of the Benghazi attack as the byproduct of an angry protest over an American-made film ridiculing Islam. She'll be joined by acting CIA Director Michael Morell in the meetings.
A senior Senate aide said the administration was sounding out moderate members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee such as Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who is in line to become the panel's top Republican next year, and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. Assessing the prospects for Rice before President Barack Obama makes any announcement would avoid the embarrassment of a protracted fight with the Senate early in the president's second term and the possible failure of the nominee.
Rice is scheduled to meet with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., her most vocal critic on Capitol Hill, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. McCain and Ayotte are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
During an interview Monday, McCain said he would ask Rice "the same questions I've been talking about on every talk show in America." Asked whether he thinks she's still unfit for secretary of state and what he was hoping for, McCain said: "I'm not hoping for anything. She asked to see me and I agreed to see her."
On talk shows the weekend following the attack, which took place on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, Rice was given talking points that described the attack as a spontaneous protest of the film, even though the Obama administration had known for days that it was a militant assault.
Republicans called her nomination doomed, leading to a vigorous defense of her by Obama in his first postelection news conference. Since then, GOP lawmakers have softened their views. McCain, who said earlier this month that would he do everything in his power to scuttle a Rice nomination, said Sunday that he was willing to hear Rice out before making a decision. McCain ally Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., now stresses that he is usually deferential to presidential Cabinet picks.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had issued a statement highly critical of Rice on the day of Obama's news conference. He indicated Monday that perhaps she didn't know what had transpired in Benghazi on the day of the attack.
"I assumed she had full knowledge of everything that went on. I'm not at all convinced of that now. She very well could have been thrown under the bus," Inhofe said in an interview. He said she hadn't requested a meeting but he would be glad to meet with her.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that the administration appreciated McCain's latest comments about Rice, but wouldn't say whether the president saw them as an opening to make the nomination. "Ambassador Rice has done an excellent job at the United Nations and is highly qualified for any number of positions," Carney said.
Several diplomats currently serving with Rice said that what she lacked in Clinton's star power, she could make up with a blunter approach that demands attention and has marked her tenure thus far at the United Nations.
Rice, who at 48 is relatively young, has played the role of "conscience of the administration" on human rights and detainee issues and would bring "a certain edge" to the secretary of state job, according one colleague who has dealt with Rice on multiple issues over the past three years.
She has been known to covet the job for years, but was passed over for Clinton in 2009.
Since arriving in New York, Rice can point to a series of diplomatic achievements — most notably the NATO-led air campaign that toppled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and tougher sanctions against Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs.
But Rice has also been criticized — along with other Security Council leaders — for the failure of the U.N.'s most powerful body to take action to end the 19-month civil war in Syria.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Edith M. Lederer in New York contributed to this report.