WASHINGTON — Susan Rice, the embattled U.N. ambassador, abruptly withdrew from consideration to be the next secretary of state on Thursday after a bitter, weekslong standoff with Republican senators who declared they would vigorously fight her nomination.
The reluctant announcement makes Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry the likely choice to be the nation's next top diplomat when Hillary Rodham Clinton departs soon. Support for the possible choice of Rice had been waning.
In another major part of the upcoming Cabinet shake-up for President Barack Obama's second term, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska now is seen as the front-runner to be defense secretary, with official word coming as soon as next week.
Obama has been weighing whether a Rice nomination would be worth the fight. He accepted her decision with a shot at Republicans.
“While I deeply regret the unfair and misleading attacks on Susan Rice in recent weeks, her decision demonstrates the strength of her character,” he said.
If Obama taps Kerry for State, the president will create a potential problem for Democrats by opening a Senate seat — one that recently defeated Republican Sen. Scott Brown is eyeing. Brown had been elected as Massachusetts' other senator in January 2010 after Democrat Ted Kennedy died, stunning the political world as he took the seat held by Kennedy for decades. Brown lost that seat in the November election.
Rice had become the face of the bungled administration account of what happened in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, when four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, were killed in what is now known to have been a terrorist attack.
Obama had defiantly declared he would choose her for secretary of state regardless of the political criticism, if he wanted, but such a choice could have depleted him of capital and gotten his second term off to a turbulent start with Capitol Hill.
Already, Rice's withdrawal underscored Obama's difficulty in pursuing his next agenda in a time of divided and divisive government.
Rice withdrew her name in a letter to Obama — and in a media rollout aimed at upholding her reputation.
She said she was convinced the confirmation process would be “lengthy, disruptive and costly — to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities.”
“That trade-off is simply not worth it to our country,” Rice said.
Rice may end up close to Obama's side in another way, as his national security adviser should Tom Donilon move on to another position. The security adviser position would not require Senate confirmation.
Obama made clear she would remain in his inner circle, saying he was grateful she would stay as “our ambassador at the United Nations and a key member of my Cabinet and national security team.” Rice, too, said in her letter she would be staying.
She would have faced strong opposition from Senate Republicans who challenged her much-maligned televised comments about the cause of the deadly raid on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Her efforts to satisfy Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte and Susan Collins in unusual, private sessions on Capitol Hill fell short.
The Republicans emerged from the meetings still expressing doubts about her qualifications.
Support has been trending away from Rice for the past few days, according to a person familiar with the deliberations. That person spoke only on condition of anonymity, not authorized to discuss the situation publicly.
Attention now shifts to Kerry, who came close to winning the presidency in 2004 and has been seen as desiring the State job. In a statement, he made no mention of his own candidacy but praised Rice, who was an adviser to him his in his presidential bid.
Inhofe supports Rice's decision
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, who serves on the committee that holds hearings on State Department nominees, said, “Ambassador Rice's decision to remove her name from being considered for Secretary of State is best for the country.
“Her involvement in misleading the public on the Benghazi attacks was deeply troubling, and I continue to believe that this was a highly coordinated effort to cover up for the lack of requested security necessary to prevent this tragedy resulting in the deaths of four American public servants. I do, however, appreciate Ambassador Rice for maintaining our strong national security ties to important African nations like Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda.
“I remain focused on helping the public get answers to what happened at our Benghazi consulate and see justice served for the four American lives lost. My hope is the official nominee for secretary of state will see the importance of thoroughly investigating this attack and strengthening our national security so this doesn't happen again.”