WASHINGTON -- A visibly annoyed President Barack Obama and tough-talking Senate Republicans clashed sharply Wednesday over Susan Rices 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 dont 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 whos 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 werent 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 shes the point person is so disconnected to reality, I dont trust her, said Graham. The reason I dont trust her is because I think she knew better, and if she didnt know better, she shouldnt be the voice of America.
Unfair, protested Obama.
But when they go after the U.N. ambassador, apparently because they think shes an easy target, then theyve 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, wouldnt let up.
Mr. President, dont think for one minute I dont 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 doesnt 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 dont want to start off a year on an ugly note.