Freshman senator Kelly Ayotte has teamed with seasoned foreign-policy leaders John McCain and Lindsey Graham to lead the Republican critique of the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack.
When Hillary Clinton said she took “full responsibility” for the lack of security at the Benghazi consulate, Senators Ayotte, McCain, and Graham issued a statement saying, “The security of Americans serving our nation everywhere in the world is ultimately the job of the Commander-in-Chief. The buck stops there.” On Tuesday, Ayotte, McCain, and Graham all met with Rice, and held a joint press conference afterwards stating their concerns about the U.N. ambassador.
“This is a clear indication of Senator Ayotte’s growing role in our conference,” a Senate leadership aide says, “and a recognition of how seriously she takes national-security issues. She’s a rising star.”
Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman was known as “the third amigo” for years, because he frequently worked with McCain and Graham on foreign-policy issues. With Lieberman retiring in January, Ayotte seems poised to take his place.
The three have bonded through their work on the Armed Services Committee and their shared connections to the military. Ayotte’s husband, Joe, served in Iraq, while both McCain and Graham served in the military themselves. Ayotte, McCain, and Graham have focused particularly on policies related to terrorist detainees.
And they’ve done plenty of traveling together. The three took a trip across the country this summer, hitting Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, and Virginia, speaking out in town halls against sequestration cuts to the defense budget.
For McCain and Ayotte, the relationship goes back to Ayotte’s Senate campaign. McCain campaigned for her in the Granite State’s primary and general election. “McCain has a deep affection for New Hampshire. It’s always been good to him,” says former New Hampshire governor John Sununu. (McCain won the New Hampshire presidential primary both times he ran for the White House.) “So he is always very willing to come up and campaign for candidates in New Hampshire,” Sununu explains.
As a Senate veteran, McCain has helped advise Ayotte since her election. Earlier this year, Ayotte traveled with McCain, Lieberman, and Rhode Island senator Sheldon Whitehouse to Asia, including a stop in Vietnam, where McCain was held as a prisoner of war for five and a half years.
Lieberman, who was “the third amigo” for years, has been Ayotte’s official Democratic “mentor” in the Senate. (Her Republican mentor is Senator John Cornyn of Texas.) He seems content to watch his protégée take his place when he retires next month. “The amigos would certainly benefit from having a señorita as part of the group, and [she] would perhaps do a better job than I did at keeping those two rascals under control,” Lieberman told Politico in October.
Aside from their work together on defense issues, Ayotte, McCain, and Graham have also developed a warm personal camaraderie. Sununu recalls traveling with the three of them in New Hampshire when they were all campaigning for Mitt Romney. Ayotte, McCain, and Graham were all so friendly with each other, the famously outspoken Sununu chuckles, that it reached “the point where I was the quiet one.”
Ayotte, Sununu says, is “a very smart lady, and knows what she’s talking about.” The three, he adds, have formed “a friendship that serves all three of them quite well.”