WASHINGTON — The choice of a successor to Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state has turned into an unexpectedly nasty political fight that could cost the White House valuable goodwill with Republicans.
Republican opposition to presumptive front-runner Susan Rice did not fade after the election, as White House officials and her supporters had predicted. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, did not win any public GOP support after meeting with two Republican senators Wednesday, her second day of unusual face-to-face sessions intended to blunt critiques of her role in explaining the fatal Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Libya.
Even moderate Republican and onetime Rice supporter Sen. Susan Collins of Maine declined to offer her backing after their 75-minute private session Wednesday.
“I still have many questions that remain unanswered,” said Collins, the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is investigating the Libya attack.
Rice also met with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
As in the meetings she had Tuesday, Rice parsed comments she made on television five days after the attack on a diplomatic post and CIA headquarters in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
Collins told reporters she was “troubled” that Rice had “decided to play what was essentially a political role at the height of a contentious presidential election campaign” by appearing on five political talk shows to present the administration’s position.
Speaking later on MSNBC, Collins said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., would make an excellent secretary of state and would be easily confirmed. Kerry is known to want the post but has been seen as less likely than Rice to be picked.
Corker also declined to say whether he would vote to confirm Rice.
President Barack Obama has not told even close aides whether he will select Rice, according to a senior White House official. In a show of support, however, she was present Wednesday during Obama’s first full Cabinet meeting since the election. The president responded to a question about whether lawmakers are “being fair” to Rice by complimenting her as “extraordinary.”
“I couldn’t be prouder of the job that she’s done,” he said.
A White House official and Democratic aides said they think that Rice could win Senate confirmation for the top diplomatic job if Obama nominated her.
But with lawmakers potentially facing difficult votes on taxes or entitlements, confirmation could come at a high political cost for Obama and vulnerable Democrats facing reelection in 2014.
On Wednesday, some Democrats came to Rice’s defense.
“Ambassador Rice is clearly a very strong candidate, and if nominated, I hope we can come together and move the confirmation hearings along swiftly and get past the misguided partisan political attacks on her reputation,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana said Rice’s GOP accusers are “horribly unfair” and completely wrong to accuse her of shading intelligence about the attack to suit political ends.
Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., said Wednesday that his opposition to Rice is based on her U.N. tenure and the Benghazi issue, which he said “may end up being the biggest coverup that we’ve ever experienced in history.”
The controversy surrounding Rice, a former management consultant who was an early supporter of Obama, has increased scrutiny of her personal affairs.
On Wednesday, a website run by the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council noted that Rice and her husband own millions of dollars worth of stock in Canadian energy and pipeline companies that would benefit from the construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline; if she became secretary of state, one of the first decisions she would have to make would probably involve Keystone’s permit.
Ed O’Keefe, Karen Tumulty and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.