Sen. Lindsey Graham (left), President Barack Obama (Getty Images)
WASHINGTON (AP) -- 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.
Setting up a possible Senate confirmation fight, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had vowed shortly before Obama's remarks that he would take all steps necessary to block Rice's nomination if the president taps her to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who joined McCain at a Capitol Hill 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 a White House news conference. "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 from challenging Rice's nomination.
"Mr. President, don't think for one minute I don't hold you ultimately responsible for Benghazi," the South Carolina Republican said in a statement. "I think you failed as commander in chief before, during and after the attack.
"Given what I know now, I have no intention of promoting anyone who is up to their eyeballs in the Benghazi debacle," he said.
At issue are Rice's Sunday talk show 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, not terrorism.
The two lawmakers along with Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire pressed for a special, Watergate-style select Senate committee to investigate the attack. They complained that separate inquiries by various Senate panels will fail to get to the truth and 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, and the measure drew immediate Democratic opposition and some doubts from Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said a select committee is unnecessary, as did Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
The three Republican 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 roll 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.
The Capitol Hill news conference inevitably led to questions about Rice, and the lawmakers made clear they would oppose her selection.
"We will do whatever is necessary to block the nomination that's within our power as far as Susan Rice is concerned," said McCain, the top GOP senator on the Armed Services Committee and Obama's presidential rival in 2008.
Graham, who said last weekend that he would oppose her nomination, said Rice "is so disconnected from reality that I don't trust her. And the reason I don't trust her is because I think she knew better, and if she didn't know better then she shouldn't be the voice of America. Somebody has got to be paying a price around this place."
Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who is poised to replace McCain as the top Republican on Armed Services, 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.
More disconcerting for Rice's prospects was the unease expressed by Collins, who is also a member of the Armed Services panel and the top Republican on the Homeland Security committee.
"I would need to have clear answers from Ambassador Rice before I could support her for any position," Collins told reporters. "She has a lot of explaining to do. She has yet to come forward and explain why she gave the misleading information to the American public. And we don't have the answer to that yet. I would need the answers before I would be prepared to confirm her for any position."
Another name mentioned as a possible candidate for the top job at the State Department is Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., 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.