Susan Rice faced waning political support on Capitol Hill, and President Obama's aides weighed whether contentious confirmation hearings would undercut other priorities at the start of his second term.
WASHINGTON — U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice took herself out of the running Thursday to be the next secretary of state, bowing to a torrent of criticism by Republicans on Capitol Hill over remarks she made after a deadly attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya.
Rice wrote in a letter to President Obama that she was confident she could serve in the nation’s highest diplomatic post but wanted to spare the nation what would have been a contentious confirmation process at the onset of Obama’s second term.
“If nominated, I am now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly — to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities,” she wrote. “That trade-off is simply not worth it to our country.”
Rice faced waning political support on Capitol Hill, and Obama’s aides weighed whether contentious confirmation hearings would undercut other priorities at the start of his second term. While it appeared the White House had the votes to cut off a filibuster in the Senate and win confirmation, the fight could have dragged on for weeks and could have damaged her effectiveness as secretary of state.
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One former administration official said Rice was in direct communication with Obama staffers but was not forced to pull out.
“She made this decision on her own over the past couple of days,” said a second source, who requested anonymity. “It became clear this was not going away.”
Obama had never said he would nominate Rice, but she had been widely considered one of the president’s top choices to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who plans to leave as soon as a successor is named.
The most prominent name mentioned as a possible nominee now is Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his party’s 2004 presidential nominee. As a member of the Senate, he likely would win easy confirmation from his colleagues.
That, in turn, would require a special election in Massachusetts and likely give Scott Brown, a moderate Republican who lost his Senate seat to Democrat Elizabeth Warren in November, another chance to run.
White House aides said the president is considering three possibilities to replace Leon Panetta as secretary of defense. They include Chuck Hagel, a Republican who is former U.S. senator from Nebraska; Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter; and Michelle Flournoy, who was the highest-ranking woman at the Pentagon for most of the first Obama administration.
If nominated and confirmed, Flournoy would be the first woman to run the Defense Department. She grew up in the Los Angeles area in the 1970s, when her father worked as a TV cinematographer at Paramount Studios, and graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 1979.
Rice will continue to serve as ambassador and in Obama’s Cabinet.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus expressed disappointment that a black woman they called qualified was denied a chance to serve in the high-profile position.
The president repeatedly defended Rice from criticisms, led by Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, that she misled Americans after the attack in Libya that killed four Americans. And he appeared to be ready to fight for her.
“If Senator McCain and Senator Graham want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” he said at a news conference the week after his re-election.
Obama on Thursday called Rice an “extraordinarily capable, patriotic and passionate public servant,” and he credited her with helping secure international support for sanctions against Iran and North Korea, achieve an independent South Sudan and advocate for human rights.
“I have every confidence that Susan has limitless capability to serve our country now and in the years to come, and know that I will continue to rely on her as an adviser and friend,” Obama said.
“While I deeply regret the unfair and misleading attacks on Susan Rice in recent weeks, her decision demonstrates the strength of her character, and an admirable commitment to rise above the politics of the moment to put our national interests first.”
Late last month, Rice took the unusual step of meeting with GOP lawmakers who opposed her potential nomination. Normally, nominees make those visits to Capitol Hill after they’re nominated.
Several, including Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire as well as Graham and McCain, said later that they remained concerned and would try to block her nomination.
Graham said Thursday that he respects Rice’s decision but continues to question what happened in Libya on Sept. 11. “When it comes to Benghazi, I am determined to find out what happened — before, during and after the attack,” he said.
A spokesman for McCain said the senator thanks Rice for her service to her country and wishes her well. “He will continue to seek all the facts about what happened before, during and after the attack on our consulate in Benghazi that killed four brave Americans,” spokesman Brian Rogers said.
U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and information-management officer Sean Smith were killed when the consulate came under attack. Several hours later, two other Americans, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, died at a CIA compound a mile away where surviving Americans from the consulate fled.
Republicans criticized Rice for describing the attack on Sunday talk shows after the Sept. 11 attack as stemming from a spontaneous protest against an anti-Islam video and not as a terrorist operation, suggesting it was a deliberate bid to protect Obama’s record on terrorism in the closing weeks of his re-election campaign. Rice said she relied on talking points the intelligence community provided, an initial assessment that turned out to be incorrect.
Rice, a Stanford University graduate and Rhodes scholar, earned a reputation as a confident, hard-charging diplomat dating to Bill Clinton’s presidency. Her sometimes blunt style has earned her as many friends as critics.
Another complication was Rice’s wealth and the suggestion of a possible conflict of interest. She and her Canadian-born husband own millions of dollars’ worth of stock in Canadian energy and pipeline companies that would profit from construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
Rice violated no laws and properly revealed the stock on government financial-disclosure forms, according to government watchdog groups. But if she had become secretary of state, one of her first acts may have involved the pipeline’s permit.
Material from Tribune Washington bureau is included in this report.