Saturday December 01, 2012 | 11:35 AM

WASHINGTON – Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins’ stinging criticisms of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice on Tuesday were viewed by many in Washington as a potentially fatal blow to Rice’s prospects as the next secretary of state.

But a one-liner from Collins helped fuel speculation that Republicans opposition to Rice is really about the balance of power in the Senate, not the ambassador’s incorrect explanations about who was behind attacks that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya.

“I think John Kerry would be an excellent appointment and would be easily confirmed by his colleagues,” said Collins in response to a question about Kerry serving as secretary of state.

The theory goes like this: If the Obama administration nominates Kerry – a Massachusetts Democrat – instead of Rice for the nation’s top diplomatic post, Kerry’s Senate seat would open up. And that would potentially give Republican Sen. Scott Brown – who lost his re-election bid in November – another shot at the seat in a special election.

Collins campaigned for Brown, and other Republicans have been openly touting Kerry for secretary of state.

The Senate Democratic caucus currently numbers 55, including independents Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator-elect Angus King of Maine. So while replacing Kerry with Brown wouldn’t tip the scales, it would narrow the Democratic edge and restore another moderate Republican.

Rice appears to have strong support among Democrats, notwithstanding her Sept. 16 comments suggesting that the Benghazi attacks may have been carried out by an angry mob rather than militant groups. But Kerry, the Democrats’ presidential nominee in 2004, is well respected by both sides for his foreign policy expertise.

Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley pointed out that the Maine Republican and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., are leading an independent, bipartisan congressional into the events in Benghazi.

"With respect to Senator John Kerry, with whom Senator Collins has served for many years, reporters asked Senator Collins if he would be confirmed if nominated by the president,” Kelley wrote in response to questions about a GOP Rice-Kerry scheme. “She replied that she felt that he would be easily confirmed. She has made no recommendations to the president on whom he should nominate should Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton decide to relinquish her position.”

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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
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