President Barack Obama lashed out at senior Republican senators Wednesday over their criticism of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice in the aftermath of the deadly Sept. 11 attack in Libya, saying they should "go after me" and not her.
Sen. John McCain had vowed shortly before Obama's remarks that he would take all steps necessary to block Rice's nomination if the president chooses her to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who plans to step down.
At issue are Rice's statements five days after the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. She attributed the incident to the outrage in the Arab world over an anti-Muslim video produced in the U.S., not terrorism.
The CIA-provided talking points that Rice drew from are posted on CBS News, including the following:
"The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, who joined McCain at a news conference, said he didn't trust Rice.
A feisty Obama defended his U.N. ambassador. "If Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me," Obama told reporters at his first White House news conference since last week's election. "And I'm happy to have that discussion with them. But for them to go after the U.N. ambassador, who had nothing to do with Benghazi and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received, and to besmirch her reputation, is outrageous."
Within minutes, Graham's response made clear he wouldn't back down.
"Mr. President, don't think for one minute I don't hold you ultimately responsible for Benghazi," the he said in a statement. "I think you failed as commander in chief before, during and after the attack.
The senators pressed for a special Senate committee to investigate the attack, saying that separate inquiries by various Senate panels will fail to get to the truth and that a comprehensive probe "up to and including the president of the United States" was warranted.
They introduced a Senate resolution calling for the special committee on Wednesday afternoon, drawing immediate Democratic opposition and doubts from some Republicans.
The senators argued that numerous questions about the attack remain unanswered, among them what Obama's national security team had told him about security in Libya, what steps were taken by Clinton and the role of the U.S. military.
"This administration has either been guilty of colossal incompetence or engaged in a cover-up," McCain said on the Senate floor shortly after introducing the resolution.
Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, who is poised to replace McCain as the top Republican on the Armed Services committee, said in a statement that Rice "would not be a fitting replacement at the State Department should Secretary Clinton step down."
"During her time as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Rice has been the Obama administration's point person in pursuing liberal causes that threaten U.S. sovereignty," Inhofe said.
Another name mentioned as a possible candidate for secretary of state is Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a Democrat who has taken on envoy roles for the administration in Afghanistan and had been mentioned for the post when Obama was first elected.
Senior Senate aides and lawmakers have said Kerry would have no problem winning Senate confirmation and see him as a far better fit than Rice, who has had little contact with members of Congress. But the selection of Kerry would create an opening for the Senate seat in Massachusetts, and Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who lost re-election last week, would be a heavy favorite to win the seat.
That would weaken the grip the Democrats have on the Senate.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.