WASHINGTON -- What was supposed to be a make-nice meeting Tuesday seemed only to make things more contentious between the White House and Senate Republicans over U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's comments following the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Ms. Rice came face to face with some of her harshest Republican critics, hoping to allay their concerns about whether she misled Americans regarding what precipitated the assault. President Barack Obama has staunchly defended Ms. Rice and is said to be considering her for his next secretary of state, but the meeting apparently served only to deepen GOP skepticism.
"Bottom line, I'm more disturbed now than I was before," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Ms. Rice and acting CIA Director Michael Morell met privately with Mr. Graham and Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., three members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who have been leading the GOP charge against the administration since the attack that caused the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
Ms. Ayotte said she left the meeting with Ms. Rice "more troubled, not less."
Mr. McCain told reporters that he and his colleagues remain "significantly troubled by many of the answers that we got, and some that we didn't get, concerning evidence that was overwhelming leading up to the attack on our consulate that we tried to get."
And late Tuesday, the three senators issued a statement that said: "We are disturbed by the administration's continued inability to answer even the most basic questions about the Benghazi attack and the administration's response. Beyond Ambassador Rice's misstatements, we continue to have questions about what happened in Benghazi before, during and after the attack on our consulate -- as well as the president's statements regarding the attack."
For several weeks, Ms. Rice has defended herself against allegations that she knowingly misled the public about the assault during a series of appearances on Sunday political talk shows five days afterward. She said repeatedly then that a spontaneous demonstration led to the violence, a claim later debunked by intelligence officials and reports from the ground.
Some Republicans have suggested that the administration purposely mischaracterized the event for fear of political fallout in the closing stages of the presidential campaign, but three weeks after Election Day, the issue remains politically volatile.
In a statement after the meeting Tuesday, Ms. Rice said she and Mr. Morell "explained that the talking points provided by the intelligence community, and the initial assessment upon which they were based, were incorrect in a key respect: There was no protest or demonstration in Benghazi. While we certainly wish that we had had perfect information just days after the terrorist attack, as is often the case, the intelligence assessment has evolved."
The senators' Tuesday night statement also said Mr. Morell corrected information he had given them earlier in the day about who had removed terror plot references from the talking points. "At approximately 4:00 this afternoon, CIA officials contacted us and indicated that acting Director Morell misspoke in our earlier meeting. The CIA now says that it deleted the al-Qaida references, not the FBI. They were unable to give a reason as to why," the statement said.
Mr. Graham and Ms. Ayotte said they will place holds on Mr. Rice's nomination if she is named to lead the State Department, as well as on Mr. Morell, if he is tapped to succeed former CIA director David Petraeus, as has been reported.
While the president has been forceful in his support for Ms. Rice, the controversy may make a Senate confirmation more difficult for her. Democrats control 53 seats and will hold 55 next year, and no Democratic caucus member has expressed concerns about Ms. Rice. But moving to a final confirmation vote would require 60 yeas -- meaning Democrats would need to persuade at least five Republicans to vote in favor.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid, D-Nev., called Ms. Rice's tenure "impeccable" and urged GOP colleagues to drop their objections. "The election is over. It is time to drop these partisan political games and focus our attention on the real challenges facing us as a nation," he said.
Ms. Rice and Mr. Morell later met separately with Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., whose homeland security committee is leading a probe of the attacks. That meeting produced a more supportive declaration for Mr. Rice.
"I've interrogated and cross-examined a lot of witnesses in my day, but I felt she was telling me the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth based on that and corroborated by the director of the CIA," Mr. Lieberman said. "I don't see a basis for disqualifying Susan Rice for some other position in our government."
Other Republican senators Tuesday expressed tepid support for Ms. Rice, saying they will reserve judgment on whether they would vote to confirm her as secretary of state.
"She always reminds me of someone who's had every drop of Kool-Aid, always espousing 1,000 percent of whatever point of view the administration is putting forward," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a senior Foreign Relations Committee member.
But Mr. Corker said his meetings with Ms. Rice have always been "transparent and direct." Ms. Rice is scheduled to meet with him again today.