As former CIA Director David Petraeus revealed new discrepancies Friday in the administration's story over Libya, a dozen female House Democrats suggested Republicans' criticism of U.N. ambassador Susan Rice over her Libya comments is instead rooted in sexism and racism.
"It is a shame that anytime something goes wrong, they pick on women and minorities," Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, the next chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told reporters Friday at a Capitol Hill news conference.
The lawmakers escalated their defense of Rice after President Obama earlier in the week devoted part of his post-election press conference to challenging Rice's critics.
Republicans, though, have stood by their concerns about Rice -- continuing to question her repeated claim on Sept. 16 that the Libya attack was a "spontaneous" act tied to an anti-Islam film. Petraeus testified Friday that his agency originally pointed to "Al Qaeda involvement" -- and according to Republican Rep. Peter King, that reference was somehow taken out by the time Rice discussed the issue on Sept. 16.
Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham earlier this week called Rice untrustworthy and unqualified to be the nation's top diplomat if Obama chooses her to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The two vowed to block any Senate confirmation if she is nominated.
The House women, a majority of them Africa-American, lashed out at McCain and Graham and demanded that they retract their criticism.
"To batter this woman because they don't feel they have the ability to batter President Obama is something we the women are not going to stand by and watch," said Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis. "Their feckless and reckless speculation is unworthy of their offices as senators."
Said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.: "We will not allow a brilliant public servant's record to be mugged to cut off her consideration to be secretary of state."
Republicans insist that Rice should have labeled the incident an act of terrorism rather than cite a protest over an anti-Muslim video that had roiled cities in the Middle East.
Rice said she was providing the "best information and the best assessment we have today."
"In fact this was not a preplanned, premeditated attack. That what happened initially was that it was a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired in Cairo as a consequence of the video," she said. "People gathered outside the embassy and then it grew very violent. Those with extremist ties joined the fray and came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are quite common in post-revolutionary Libya, and that then spun out of control."
Acting CIA director Mike Morell has told congressional committees this week that Rice was relying on an initial intelligence assessment that eventually proved incorrect.
The House women vowed to fight any effort to make Rice a scapegoat for the explanations for the attack from the administration.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.