WASHINGTON – President Obama dropped U.N. envoy Susan Rice from consideration as his next secretary of state, signaling the start of a broad reshuffling of his Cabinet and senior staff.

Bowing to a barrage of criticism by Republican members of Congress over Rice’s response after armed militants overran a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, Obama said Thursday he had agreed to her request to withdraw her name from consideration.

Obama said he deeply regretted “the unfair and misleading attacks” on Rice, and he praised his ambassador to the U.N. as “an extraordinarily capable, patriotic and passionate public servant.”

The decision marked a personal defeat for Obama, who had defended Rice repeatedly in recent weeks and is locked in tense negotiations with Republican leaders in the House over the fiscal crisis. Rice, whose mother grew up in Portland, has been a pillar of Obama’s inner circle since she joined his 2008 presidential campaign.

At his first postelection news conference, Obama had directly challenged her Republican critics. “When they go after the U.N. ambassador, apparently because they think she’s an easy target, then they’ve got a problem with me,” he said.

But Rice faced waning political support on Capitol Hill, and Obama’s aides weighed whether contentious confirmation hearings would undercut other priorities at the start of his second term. Although it appeared the White House had the votes to cut off a filibuster in the Senate and win her confirmation, the fight could have dragged on for weeks, and could have damaged her effectiveness as secretary of state.

The decision leaves Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as the leading contender to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state after she steps down early next year. That, in turn, would require a special election in Massachusetts and likely give Scott Brown, a moderate Republican who lost his Senate seat to Democrat Elizabeth Warren in November, another chance to run.

White House aides said the president was considering three possibilities to replace Leon E. Panetta as secretary of defense.

They include Chuck Hagel, a Republican former U.S. senator from Nebraska; Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter; and Michelle Flournoy, the highest-ranking woman at the Pentagon for most of Obama’s first term.

If nominated, Flournoy would be the first woman to run the Defense Department.

In a letter to Obama, Rice explained her decision by noting that confirmation hearings “would be lengthy, disruptive and costly — to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities. That trade-off is simply not worth it to our country.”

A former administration official said Rice was not forced to pull out by the White House.

Rice drew flak from Republican lawmakers after she appeared on Sunday TV talk shows days after armed militants stormed the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi in eastern Libya on Sept. 11, killing U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

Although Rice relied on so-called talking points given to her by the CIA, a growing number of Republicans said she had falsely described the attacks as spontaneous protests and not a calculated act of terrorism by Libyan extremists.

Rice later agreed that her statements were incorrect, but blamed misinformation given to her by the intelligence community. It did little to stanch the criticism, however.

Her efforts to satisfy Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte and Susan Collins in unusual, private sessions on Capitol Hill fell short.

Maine’s Collins said at the time she remained “troubled” by Rice’s explanations and that she would “need additional information before I could support her nomination.”

On Thursday, Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley said the senator “respects Ambassador Rice’s decision to withdraw her name from consideration as Secretary of State and to continue to work diligently to represent the United States at the United Nations.”

Collins and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., are moving forward with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee investigation of the Benghazi incident. Collins is the panel’s top Republican.

“The committee continues to interview individuals, review classified documents, and expects to issue a report later this month,” Kelley said in a statement.

Press Herald Staff Writer Kevin Miller contributed to this report

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