WASHINGTON (AP) — With congressional opposition softening, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice could find her name in contention as early as this week to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state. It's a step that may signal greater U.S. willingness to intervene in world crises during President Barack Obama's second term.
As Obama nears a decision on who should be the country's next top diplomat, Rice has emerged as the clear front-runner on a short list of candidates that many believe has been narrowed to just her and Sen. John Kerry, despite lingering questions over her comments about the deadly Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. Consulate in Libya.
According to congressional aides and administration officials, Rice will be making the rounds on Capitol Hill this week for closed door meetings with key lawmakers whose support she will need to be confirmed. Those appearances follow her first in-depth explanation of her Benghazi remarks that Republicans seized on as evidence of the administration's mishandling of the attack that took the lives of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.
Acting CIA Director Michael Morell will join Rice in her meetings with lawmakers.
A senior Senate aide said the administration was trying to measure the strength of the Republican opposition to a Rice nomination, sounding out the more moderate members of the 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.
Rice is scheduled to meet on Tuesday with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., her most vocal critic on Capitol Hill. She will also meet with Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. McCain and Ayotte are members of the Armed Services Committee.
During an interview on 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 interrupted and said, "I'm not hoping for anything. She asked to see me and I agreed to see her."
Assessing the prospects for Rice before Obama makes any announcement would avoid the embarrassment of a protracted fight with the Senate early in the president's second term.
On talk shows the weekend following the attacks, Rice relied on talking points provided by the intelligence community that described the attack as a spontaneous assault growing out of a protest of an anti-Muslim film. GOP critics say her remarks downplayed evidence of an obvious terrorist attack just weeks before the Nov. 6 election.
Republicans called her nomination doomed, leading to a vigorous defense of her by Obama in his first post-election news conference. But since then, GOP lawmakers seemed to have softened their views. McCain, who said earlier this month that would he do everything in his power to scuttle a Rice nomination, said on Sunday that he was willing to hear her out before making a decision. McCain ally Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has also eased his opposition and said he is usually deferential to presidential Cabinet picks.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., a member of the 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 "will not be going into the job as a star," said Karl Inderfurth, a former U.S. ambassador and senior State Department official who worked closely with Rice in President Bill Clinton's administration when she worked as a staff aide to the National Security Council and then as assistant secretary of state for African affairs. "She will be a rising star, though."