WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats rallied to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's defense as Republicans said they were even more troubled by her account of the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and signaled they would try to scuttle her nomination if President Barack Obama tapped her as the next secretary of state.
"The personal attacks against Ambassador Rice by certain Republican senators have been outrageous and utterly unmoored from facts and reality," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who called the criticism unfathomable in light of disclosures from the intelligence community.
As congressional Democrats and the Obama administration delivered a full-throated defense of the possible diplomatic nominee, Rice was meeting Wednesday with Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Bob Corker of Tennessee. Corker is next in line for the top GOP spot on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"We'll see and we're going to sit down and talk to her," Corker told The Associated Press. "She always delivers the party line, the company line, whatever the talking points are. I think most of us hold the secretary of state and secretary of treasury to a whole different level. We understand that they're going to support the administration, but we also want to know that they are independent enough, when administration is off-base, that they are putting pressure. I think that's what worries me most about Rice."
Rice answered questions Tuesday from Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte about her much-maligned explanations about the cause of the September attack in Libya that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
At the hour-plus, closed-door session, Rice conceded that her initial account — that a spontaneous demonstration over an anti-Muslim video triggered the attack — was wrong, but she insisted she had not been trying to mislead the American people when she made her comments five days later.
"The talking points provided by the intelligence community, and the initial assessment upon which they were based, were incorrect in a key respect: There was no protest or demonstration in Benghazi," Rice said in a statement after the meeting. "While we certainly wish that we had had perfect information just days after the terrorist attack, as is often the case the intelligence assessment has evolved."
She was joined in the meeting by Acting CIA Director Michael Morell.
Rice requested the meeting with the three senators — her most outspoken critics — but she failed to mollify them and they indicated they would try to block her nomination.
"We are significantly troubled by many of the answers that we got and some that we didn't get concerning evidence that was leading up to the attack on the consulate," McCain told reporters after a session with Rice that he described as candid.
Said Graham, "Bottom line, I'm more disturbed now than I was before that 16 Sept. explanation." He said in a later interview that Rice went "far beyond the flawed talking points" and should be held accountable.
"I'm more troubled today," said Ayotte, who argued that it was clear in the days after the attack that it was terrorism and not a spontaneous demonstration.
Rice's unusual visit to Capitol Hill — typically only nominees meet privately with lawmakers — reflects the Obama administration's campaign for the current front-runner to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton against some strenuous GOP opposition.
The White House remained defiant in its support for Rice, arguing that she was relying on an assessment from the intelligence community and had no responsibility in compiling the information on the cause of the attack. It dismissed what it characterized as a fixation on her national television appearances five days after the raid.
"The focus on, some might say, obsession on comments made on Sunday shows seems to me, and to many, to be misplaced," Obama spokesman Jay Carney told reporters at a White House briefing.
House Democrats, including female members of the Congressional Black Caucus, have suggested that the GOP opposition to Rice is sexist and racist. Senate Democrats, who will increase their advantage to 55-45 in the next Congress, said Rice could win confirmation if Republicans recognize the unfairness of penalizing her for the intelligence community's talking points.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters "it is so unfair to hold her responsible for something that she didn't produce and which the intelligence community has specifically stood by."
In a statement late Tuesday, McCain, Graham and Ayotte said Morell told them the FBI had removed references to al-Qaida in the talking points to prevent compromising ongoing investigations. Later in the day, the three senators said the CIA contacted them to say Morell misspoke and the CIA had deleted the references.