* Rice is a contender for nomination as secretary of state
* UN ambassador to face critics with backing from CIA chief
By Jeff Mason and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON, Nov 26 (Reuters) - U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice will meet with lawmakers this week to discuss her controversial remarks about the September attack in Benghazi, Libya, that have caused hurdles for her potential promotion to secretary of state.
The move, announced shortly after a top critic said he would be open to speaking to her, could fuel speculation that she is gunning for the nation’s top diplomatic job.
Republicans have attacked Rice for appearing on TV talks shows shortly after the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi and saying that preliminary information suggested the assault was the result of protests over an anti-Muslim film rather than a premeditated attack.
Senator John McCain, a vocal opponent of Rice’s possible nomination as secretary of state, said on Sunday he would be happy to meet with her about the issue.
A Senate aide said that Rice would meet with McCain as well as Senators Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte, fellow Republicans who have also criticized Rice.
An Obama administration official said Rice and Michael Morell, CIA’s acting director, would meet with officials on Capitol Hill but declined to give details about timing.
“She and Mike Morell are meeting with folks on the Hill about Libya this week,” the official said.
Rice said last week that her comments about the attack were based squarely on information provided to her by the intelligence community. The presence of Morell in the meetings is likely meant to give weight to that assertion.
President Barack Obama’s nominee for the position must be confirmed by the Senate to take the job. Democrats have a majority in the Senate, but Republicans could block his choice.
The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans were killed in the attack.
Rice will meet another Republican Senator, Susan Collins, later in the week. A Senate aide said the meeting was arranged at Rice’s request. Collins is the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which is one of several committees probing the events in Benghazi.
Rice will also meet Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent who chairs the committee, according to a Senate aide.
Rice is considered a top contender to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is expected to step down at the end of Obama’s first term.
Obama has not said who he wants to nominate for the post, but he bristled this month over Republican criticism of Rice, saying at a news conference that the senators should “go after” him rather than her. White House officials are fond of Rice and she is close to the president.
Senator John Kerry is also considered to be in the running to take over as the top U.S. diplomat.