Susan Rice's decision to withdraw as a candidate for US secretary of state has sparked fierce dispute between Republicans and Democrats, but they appeared to unite over a likely replacement: Senator John Kerry.
UN ambassador Rice, a close ally of President Barack Obama, had been a front runner to replace Hillary Clinton as Washington's top diplomat but fell foul of a row over the administration's reaction to this year's attacks in Benghazi, Libya on September 11.
Her role as a top defender of the administration over the attack that killed the US ambassador to Libya made her a lightning rod for the ire of Republicans keen to dent Obama after his re-election victory.
"If nominated, I am now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly, to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities," Rice said in a letter to Obama on Thursday.
Rice told NBC, which first reported her decision, that she was determined not to detract from the crucial first months of Obama's second term.
"We're talking about comprehensive immigration reform, balanced deficit reduction, job creation - that's what matters.
"To the extent that my nomination could have delayed or distracted or deflected, or maybe even [made] some of these priorities impossible to achieve, I didn't want that."
In a Washington Post op-ed Rice also defended her controversial statements about the deadly September 11 attack on a US mission in Libya. "I relied on fully cleared, unclassified points provided by the intelligence community, which encapsulated their best current assessment," she wrote. "The intelligence community did its job in good faith. And so did I. I have never sought in any way, shape or form to mislead the American people."
Obama, who aides say is philosophically and personally close to Rice, issued a statement condemning the "unfair and misleading attacks" on her and said she would stay on as UN ambassador with a spot on his cabinet. The president was due yesterday to hold a closed meeting with her at the White House.
Republican Senator John Barrasso said Rice made the right decision. "Her reporting after the 9-11 attacks, to me, was when she disqualified herself for that position," he said.
But lawmakers on both sides of the political divide agreed that her departure opened the door for Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I think Kerry would be eminently qualified and confirmable," Barrasso said.
After the wrangling over Rice, he said, "I want to see somebody who has sound judgment, who will ask tough questions".
Kerry is a known commodity. He has served on the Foreign Relations Committee for some three decades, ran for president, and is well-travelled in global hot spots such as the Middle East.
"Even if we don't agree with Senator Kerry on some of the domestic issues, we think that he has handled foreign relations as chairman pretty good," said Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa.
With Rice out of the picture, he said, "I think we'll be able to approve a secretary of state faster", particularly if Kerry, 69, gets the nod. "I think he'd have an easy confirmation."
Liberal independent Senator Bernie Sanders said he believed Republicans "made the Benghazi tragedy and the loss of life into a very partisan political issue, and that's unfortunate".
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democrat Chris Coons said that while he was disappointed to learn of Rice's withdrawal, Kerry was a top alternative. "The president is entitled to a nominee of his choice, and at this particularly troubled, difficult and challenging moment in the world, it's important for us to have a seasoned and experienced senior leader," Coons said.
Kerry in a statement praised Rice as an "extraordinarily capable and dedicated public servant" and alluded to his own battles in the political arena. "As someone who has weathered my share of political attacks and understands on a personal level just how difficult politics can be, I've felt for her throughout these last difficult weeks," he said.
Rice could become national security adviser should Tom Donilon move on to another position, though that is not expected imminently. The security adviser position would not require Senate confirmation.
Additional reporting by Associated Press