Republican senators are raising the stakes in an emerging game of Cabinet chicken, vowing to block a candidate for U.S. secretary of state.
President Barack Obama is keen on nominating U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to become America’s next top diplomat. But Republicans say she’s unqualified because she bungled the public response to the deadly Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Obama administration officials earlier this week appeared to be floating trial balloons about nominating her for secretary of state and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., for defense secretary. But it is increasingly apparent that doing so would spark a fight and could lead to a confirmation defeat for Rice.
“We would do everything in our power to block the nomination,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told reporters at a joint Nov. 14 press briefing with fellow GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
The trio’s threat came one day after other Republican senators indicated Rice’s role in offering an incorrect explanation in the immediate wake of the attack could keep her from becoming secretary of state.
“I’m concerned about the fact that she went on the Sunday [morning political talk] shows and said this was the result of a spontaneous uprising,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said. “Obviously, she based those comments on directives or information she received from someone, and it’s important to know who that directive came from and what that information was.”
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who could become the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee after the new Congress is seated in January, said, “I’ve had conversations with the CIA, and my sense is they were also baffled by her comments.”
A few hours later, during a rare White House press conference, Obama became furious when asked about the McCain threat.
Obama called it “outrageous” that Republicans are “going after” Rice over Benghazi. He said Rice’s comments in the days after the attack were based on intelligence she received, adding that as U.N. ambassador she was not involved in the situation.
“Come after me instead,” a stern Obama said.
“When they go after the U.N. ambassador — because they think she’s an easy target — then they’ve got a problem with me,” the president said, adding that if he decides she is the best person for the job he still will send her name to the Senate.
Meantime, McCain, Graham and Ayotte want Senate leaders to form a special panel to investigate what happened before, during and after the Benghazi attack.
The senators say a “select committee” is needed because three upper chamber panels have jurisdiction over the matter: the Intelligence, Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees.
“A segmented, stovepiped investigation with three committees going off in different directions ... will lead to failure,” Graham said. “If you have people in separate rooms saying different things, it will slip through the cracks.”
It was not immediately clear whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would agree to form a select committee.
“The party in power never likes to have a select committee” investigation, McCain said, noting “there was resistance” to such committees to investigate the Watergate scandal, the Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war.
The trio indicated the Senate Armed Services Committee — all three are members and McCain is the ranking member — plans to hold hearings on the matter. To that end, McCain signaled the panel would summon Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and U.S. Africa Command chief Gen. Carter Ham to testify.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein announced earlier in the day that former CIA Director David Petraeus, who resigned Nov. 9 over an affair that has triggered a complex scandal, would testify before her panel.
McCain and Graham said they would like Petraeus to speak to more than just the members of that committee.
“I would think he would be an important witness for the select committee,” McCain said.