WASHINGTON — Susan E. Rice may have hoped that paying a conciliatory call on three hostile Senate Republicans on Tuesday would smooth over a festering dispute about the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, and clear a roadblock to her nomination as secretary of state.
But the senators seemed anything but mollified, signaling instead that they would still oppose Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, if she is nominated by President Barack Obama, even after she conceded errors in the account of the assault she gave on Sunday morning television programs shortly after it occurred in September.
Two of the Republicans, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, said they would seek to block Rice, who according to administration officials remains Obama's preferred choice to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The third Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said on Fox that he would be "very hard-pressed" to support Rice.
"Bottom line, I'm more disturbed than I was before," Graham said after the tense, closed-door meeting.
The continued criticism of Rice, 48, a diplomat with close ties to Obama, deepens an already-bitter and unusually personal feud between the White House and Republicans over Libya. Responding to a question about criticism of Rice at a news conference two weeks ago, Obama said: "If Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me."
It also raises the prospect of a confirmation battle if the president goes ahead with nominating Rice. To some extent, that battle is already under way, even before he has submitted her name. Rice's visits to senators, which will continue today, bear all the hallmarks of a presidential nominee seeking to win over reluctant legislators.
A senior administration official said the harsh reaction to her appearance Tuesday would have no effect on Rice's chances for secretary of state.
"They've been saying the same thing for months," he said.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is the other leading candidate for the post. Several senators, including McCain, said they would prefer Kerry and predicted he would sail through a confirmation hearing.
In a statement after the meeting, Rice said she incorrectly described the attack in Benghazi — which killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans — as a spontaneous protest gone awry rather than a premeditated terrorist attack. But she said she based her remarks on the intelligence then available — intelligence that changed over time.
"Neither I nor anyone else in the administration intended to mislead the American people at any stage in the process," said Rice, who was accompanied in the meeting by the acting CIA director, Michael J. Morrell.
Rice had requested the meeting amid signs that McCain and Graham were softening their criticism. "She deserves the ability and the opportunity to explain herself," McCain said Sunday.
Assuming the White House had the support of every Senate Democrat, it would have to win over only five Republicans to gain a filibuster-proof majority.