Post-Election Partisanship Heats Up Around Obama's Next Secretary of State

As Hillary Clinton preps for departure, Senate Republicans take issue with potential successor

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) speaks with U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice (L) at a U.N. Security Council meeting on the crisis in Syria on Jan. 31, 2012.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks with U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice at a security council meeting, Jan. 31, 2012.

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Even as America's political rhetoric has settled down post-election, one emerging flashpoint is the increasingly partisan fight over Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's potential successor. As a chastened Republican Party has looked inward after losses in both the presidential and senatorial fields, a primary target of Republican criticism has become Susan Rice, the current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

President Barack Obama is rumored to favor Rice for Clinton's replacement after Clinton steps down at the end of her term, although Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is also thought to be in the mix for the position. Rice, whose foreign relations career began under President Bill Clinton, has taken a lot of heat from the GOP following her appearances on Sunday morning news shows in response to the attack in Benghazi, Libya that resulted in the death of a U.S. ambassador and three other U.S. citizens. Shortly after the attack, Rice was on television promoting intel that the incident was prompted by an anti-Islamic video and not fueled by terrorists, which the administration later acknowledged.

[VOTE: Should Obama Nominate Rice for Secretary of State?]

The GOP opposition is largely led by Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have in the past been leaders on Republican foreign policy.

"I will do everything I can to block her," McCain has repeatedly said on several television shows. McCain has said Rice purposely mislead the American public on the cause of the attacks in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 election. The administration says Rice was merely speaking from talking points provided by the CIA during an ongoing investigation.

Cabinet secretaries are subject to Senate approval, with a two-thirds majority necessary to overcome a filibuster, which McCain is clearly threatening. Democrats will hold a 55-45 advantage in the chamber once the 114th Congress takes over, but 60 votes would be necessary for confirmation.

Better the Dem you know than the Dem you don't? Sens. Graham (left) and McCain (right) seem to prefer Sen. Kerry (center) over Rice.

Members of the foreign policy community agree the dispute over Rice is largely political, rather than being concerned with her ability to do the job.

"There are key concerns with any candidate – that they are capable and that they rise above partisan tilts, particularly in a rule as important as Secretary of State," says Mark Kennedy, a former Republican congressman and director of the graduate school of political management at George Washington University. "Are they being political about Rice? Clearly. But was she being political when she made the statements? That's the question that's being asked. Was she politically spinning it?"

It's crucial that secretaries of state remain as apolitical as possible in order to maintain respect across the globe, Kennedy says.

"We have to have people in such important roles that do not allow themselves to give anything other than the clearest statements of conditions during incidents such as that," he says. "There's a long tradition that politics ends at the border, that America's interests abroad are America's interests, red and blue."

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It's obvious Obama could nominate Rice, but pushing for her confirmation could expend some political capital that might be necessary for pursuing a "grand bargain" tied to deficit reduction, say other experts.

"Does he want to nominate someone as his secretary of state who is going to be a distraction from what arguably should be his primary focal point between now and the end of the year?" says one respected D.C.-based foreign policy expert. "I don't have any doubt he could get her confirmed."

Obama strongly defended Rice in his post-election press conference, decrying those who would "besmirch" her reputation. Democrats have also fanned out across cable networks in defense of Rice. But that hasn't stopped the partisan bickering, as a group of House Republicans sent a letter to the president on Monday expressing their opposition to Rice.