Washington - A visibly annoyed President Barack Obama and tough-talking Senate Republicans clashed sharply Wednesday over Susan Rice's qualifications to become secretary of state, a strong reminder that all the post-election talk about bipartisanship has its limits.
The fight started with trial balloons in the news media this week signaling that Obama plans to nominate Rice as secretary of state when Hillary Clinton steps down
Two Republican senators responded Wednesday. Sen. John McCain of Arizona called Rice "not qualified," and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said flatly, "I don't trust her," because of her statements about the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.
Obama, in an unusual show of emotion Wednesday, defended Rice, the United Nations ambassador who's been a mainstay of his foreign policy team since his 2008 campaign.
"If Senator McCain and Senator Graham want to go after somebody, they should go after me," he said at a White House news conference. "To besmirch her reputation is outrageous."
Rice has been under fire ever since she was dispatched by the Obama administration to tell Sunday talk shows five days after the Libya incident that it resulted from a spontaneous demonstration, a narrative that turned out to be false.
In defending Rice Wednesday, Obama may have inadvertently suggested she lacked the stature of a secretary of state, arguing that she was only a spokesman on the Libya story, reciting talking points given her by intelligence agencies.
"For them to go after the U.N. ambassador who had nothing to do with Benghazi?" Obama asked. "And was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received?"
Republicans weren't buying that.
"This is about the role she played around four dead Americans when it seems to be that the story coming out of the administration – and she's the point person – is so disconnected to reality, I don't trust her," said Graham. "The reason I don't trust her is because I think she knew better, and if she didn't know better, she shouldn't be the voice of America."
Unfair, protested Obama.
"But when they go after the U.N. ambassador, apparently because they think she's an easy target, then they've got a problem with me," Obama said. "If I think that she would be the best person to serve America in that capacity at the State Department, then I will nominate her."
After the press conference, Graham, often considered a Republican who works well with Democrats, wouldn't let up.
"Mr. President, don't think for one minute I don't hold you ultimately responsible for Benghazi. I think you failed as commander in chief before, during and after the attack," he said.
The fight comes at a post-election time when the two parties have signaled they want to work together. The Rice flap throws a grenade into the works.
Having Rice in the mix "doesn't help," said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a Republican with a history of finding bipartisan consensus.
Presidents and senators try to avoid nomination fights, partly because opponents traditionally believe a president is entitled to his team, and partly because they don't want to start off a year on an ugly note.
Nominees who prove toxic are often withdrawn before they get a vote. When controversial nominees get that vote, they rarely lose, though the new president often has to spend valuable political capital winning approval. In 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder weathered a stormy confirmation hearing – and Republican-imposed delays – and was confirmed with 75 votes.
Republicans see Rice through a broad lens: They want more answers on the Libya incident – and view it as a way of scoring points against Obama – and criticizing Rice is an attention-getting way of accomplishing that goal.
"We will do whatever's necessary to block the nomination that's within our power as far as Susan Rice is concerned," McCain told a news conference. He and other Republicans want a special committee to investigate the Libya incident.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., a senior Foreign Relations Committee member, went further, saying Rice's problems go beyond Libya.
"Rice has been the Obama administration's point person in pursuing liberal causes that threaten U.S. sovereignty," he said. "She has also not been an effective diplomat or manager at the U.N."
The nomination first would be considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, now chaired by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. Kerry has been mentioned for State as well as Defense.
The committee's top Republican is slated to be Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, known for cooperating with Democrats.
Wednesday, Corker would not go as far as some Republicans, but he was puzzled why Rice did not know more about the incident.
"It's a very big problem," he said. "We all rely on people in these positions to be transparent and honest."
"How could we, knowing that our intelligence officials in Libya in real time . . . were letting our folks know back here that this was a terrorist attack – it's beyond me that we would be out publicly talking about the event in that way," he said.
But unlike others, Corker would not say whether Rice could be confirmed. "You have to give someone a full hearing," Corker said.
Democrats were more sympathetic.
"She's qualified to be secretary of state," said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich. "She may have had bad information."
Levin urged considering the whole of Rice's resume, and to wait to hear her side of what happened regarding Libya.