If the high-stakes showdown over avoiding the fiscal cliff is the main event in Washington this holiday season, and passing spending bills to fund the federal government — Congress' main job — is the less-glamorous matinee, the most diverting sideshow is probably the Republican spitball-shooting at President Obama's probable pick to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. On Tuesday, Rice and acting CIA Director Michael Morell met with the leaders of the GOP jeering section, Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), plus Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), to address their concerns over her Sept. 16 public statements about the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. It didn't go well. "Bottom line, I'm more disturbed now than I was before," said Graham afterward, in sentiments echoed by Ayotte and McCain. Graham and Ayotte threatened to place a "hold" on her nomination. Why are Republicans so insistent on keeping Rice from getting promoted to the role of America's top diplomat?
1. Republicans believe Rice tried to cover up a terrorist attack
The GOP case against Rice "appears to boil down to the idea that leading Democrats covered up the involvement of terrorists in some way connected to al Qaeda in the Benghazi attack," says Peter Bergen at CNN. And if you believe that Rice was lying to the public about an al Qaeda link to protect Obama before the election, you probably wouldn't trust her with a big promotion. CNN reports that Rice admitted in the meeting that she saw "classified documents that mentioned al Qaeda" before her TV tour, says Paul Mirengoff at Power Line. That's pretty damning. "Though Rice can argue that it would have been improper to disclose classified information, she cannot argue that it was improper to make statements that didn't entirely square with that information."
2. This is their best tool to get answers on Benghazi
Rice is more a proxy than a target — in fact, Ayotte and Graham said they might block any nominee to replace Clinton until they get clearer answers on Benghazi, says Sara Murray in The Wall Street Journal. At the meeting, for example, Morell said the FBI had replaced "al Qaeda" with "extremists" in the unclassified talking points Rice relied on, but the CIA corrected that afterward, saying it had taken out the names of specific groups. Several congressional committees, plus the FBI, are investigating the Benghazi attack, but Rice gives the GOP leverage. "Before anyone can make an intelligent decision about promoting someone involved in Benghazi, we need to do a lot more," Graham said. "We're not even close to getting the basic answers."
3. Republicans are trying hard to manufacture a scandal
"The murder of four Americans in Benghazi, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, demands answers," says Jonathan Capehart at The Washington Post. But "that gets lost every time McCain, Graham, and Ayotte troop to the cameras to hammer away at Rice for discussing the tragedy on television." Their conspiracy theory doesn't even make sense, says CNN's Bergen. The CIA took out references to the suspected attackers, Ansar al-Sharia — a group inspired by al Qaeda but without any links — so as not to tip them off. "If Rice had gone beyond her unclassified talking points and said that Ansar al-Sharia was suspected to be behind the Benghazi attacks, no doubt she would now be being hounded for the unauthorized disclosure of classified information." The GOP should stop embarrassing itself by obsessively trying "to inflate the Benghazi attack into a huge scandal," says Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs.
4. And the GOP attacks are taking their toll on Obama
Thanks largely to the relentless Republican focus on Rice, "there are increasing signs that the fallout from the attack in Benghazi is hurting the Obama administration," says Aaron Blake at The Washington Post. In a new CNN poll, 40 percent of respondents say they believe the administration deliberately intended to mislead the public with its initial statements on the attacks. "The fact that 2 in 5 Americans now believe that there was a cover-up in the Obama White House means Republicans aren't exactly tilting at windmills here." On the contrary, their strategy of attacking Rice "appears to be paying dividends."
5. Republicans have a different person in mind for State
It could also be that McCain and his GOP colleagues are trying to knock Rice out of contention so somebody else can be secretary of state. The other frontrunner for the job is Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), and Kerry and McCain formed a friendship in the 1990s over Vietnam. Also, if Kerry moves to the executive branch, outgoing Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) is a good bet to replace him in a special election, giving the Republicans a big pickup in the Senate. McCain also has a "decade-old bipartisan friendship" with Clinton, says Politico's Scott Wong, so until the Senate confirms her replacement, he has a trusted ally at Foggy Bottom.