For the past several weeks, congressional Republicans have presented a united front against UN Ambassador Susan Rice, calling her unfit for the job of Secretary of State and promising to block her should President Obama nominate her for the job.
But on Sunday, Rice’s most vocal opponents — Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) — struck a decisively different tone, declining to state that they would vote against her potential nomination in the Senate. Instead, both indicated, they now want to hear her out.
McCain, who previously promised to block Rice’s nomination, indicated Sunday that he could be convinced to shift away from that hard-line position.
“Sure,” McCain said to a question on whether Rice could do anything to change his mind about her on “Fox News Sunday.” “I’d give everyone the benefit of explaining their position and the actions that they took. I’d be glad to have the opportunity to discuss these issues with her.”
“I think she deserves the ability and the opportunity to explain herself and her position,” McCain said when asked if he might vote to confirm her as secretary of state. “But, she’s not the problem. The problem is the president of the United States, who, on — in a debate with Mitt Romney, said that he had said it was a terrorist attack.”
Graham repeated his belief that the administration’s refusal to immediately call the September 11 attacks in Benghazi a terrorist attack was a political cover-up, during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday. But when asked whether he would vote against Rice because of her appearances on the Sunday talk show circuit five days after the attacks, Graham too declined to repeat his previous hard-line opposition to Rice.
“When she comes over, if she does, there will be a lot of questions asked of her about this event and others,” Graham said when asked if he still opposed Rice’s elevation to Secretary of State.
Republicans’ opposition to Rice centers on her appearance on five Sunday talk shows on Sept. 16 in which she said that the attacks that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, were the result of a spontaneous protest over an offensive video. Following vocal opposition from McCain and Graham, 97 Republican House members penned a letter to Obama indicating that they opposed her nomination and that she “either willfully or incompetently misled the American public.”
But the softer tone from McCain and Graham Sunday comes after strong Democratic push-back to their criticism of Rice. Their comments also follow reports this week that the office of the Director of National Intelligence, rather than political officials, struck any mention of terrorism and al Qaeda from the intelligence briefing Rice used on the Sunday shows five days after the attack.
In a press conference on Nov. 14, President Obama strongly defended Rice. “If Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” Obama said, adding that their attempt to “besmirch her reputation is outrageous.”
Two days later, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), the incoming chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, argued that “there is a clear sexism and racism that goes with these comments being made by unfortunately Sen. McCain and others.” Last week, Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), the third-ranking Democrat in the House, took Fudge’s side and accused Rice’s critics were using racial “code words” like “incompetent” to attack her.
While Republicans have contested Clyburn’s and Fudge’s comments, they also seem to be modifying their criticism of Rice — particularly her abilities as a diplomat.
Rep. Peter King (R-NY), the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, maintained his criticism of Rice’s handling of the attacks in Benghazi Sunday, but went out of his way to compliment her work as ambassador to the United Nations.
“Let me just say, I think Susan Rice has done an effective job as U.N. ambassador, especially on issues such as North Korea,” King said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He then said Rice should not have simply used the talking points handed to her on that fateful Sunday. “That assessment was incomplete and she knew it was incomplete,” King said. “She has an obligation not to just be a puppet and take what’s handed to her.”
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.