Republican congressional leaders fell out of step with their presidential candidate Wednesday, with most refusing to echo the sharp criticism voiced by Mitt Romney over the Obama administration's response to Egyptian protests at the US embassy in Cairo Tuesday.
On Capitol Hill, flags were lowered to half mast in honor of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans killed in the attack, and no partisan rancor was evident in either chamber.
At their morning meeting on the floor of the Senate, majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada and minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky traded none of their signature barbs Wednesday morning.
“Yesterday we commemorated the anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, and today we are reminded that brave Americans serve us every day at the risk of their own lives,” Senator McConnell said. “We honor the Americans we lost in Libya, and we will stand united in our response.”
The comments stood in stark contrast to those of Mr. Romney, who said at a press conference in Jacksonville, Fla., that the White House "was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt instead of condemning their actions."
"It's never too early for the United States Government to condemn attacks on Americans, and to defend our values," Romney said. "The White House distanced itself last night from the statement, saying it wasn't ‘cleared by Washington.’ That reflects the mixed signals they’re sending to the world."
That criticism came after the Romney campaign released a statement late Tuesday night that hit President Obama for a tweet from the US Embassy in Cairo that was sent before a mob attacked the embassy. That tweet, since deleted, reads in part: “We condemn the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” The mob attacks in Cairo and Benghazi were reportedly sparked by an amateur film by an American, which depicts the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light.
“It's disgraceful that the Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks,” Romney said in the statement.
The Obama administration did not authorize the tweet and the White House disavowed the statement.
"Governor Romney is absolutely right, there is no justification for these deadly attacks and we should never apologize for American freedom. Islamic radicals will use any pretext to justify their hatred of America and our freedom," Senator DeMint said in a statement.
Another congressional GOP leader, Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, made a more elliptical comment, saying “these attacks were reportedly committed to protest an act of free speech that has no connection to the United States government. The apologies for these outrages should come from the Libyans and Egyptians, not us.”
But most Republican members of Congress steered clear of the controversy. House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia, a frequent critic of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy, instead chose to praise Stevens.
“Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues were known for having stood firmly on the side of the Libyan people against tyranny, and were untiring in their efforts to help the Libyan people establish a peaceful and tolerant democracy,” Congressman Cantor said in a statement. “These brave and honorable public servants deserve the respect of the American and Libyan people, for whom they tragically gave their lives.”
While coordination between presidential campaigns and Capitol Hill is usually tight, the Romney campaign’s rhetoric around the incidents in Libya and Egypt would be a second divergence from congressional Republicans this week.
“I thought it was a mistake on the part of the White House to propose it,” Romney said. “I think it was a mistake for Republicans to go along with it.”
Of course, many leading Republicans – including House Speaker John Boehner, Cantor, and Senator McConnell, among others – did go along with it.
Asked about Romney’s remarks on Tuesday, McConnell wouldn’t bite.
“I don't have any interest,” McConnell said with an impish smile, “in getting into a debate with the nominee of our party.”