WASHINGTON – The Senate overwhelmingly confirmed President Barack Obama’s choice of five-term Sen. John Kerry to be secretary of state, with Republicans and Democrats praising him as the ideal successor to Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The vote Tuesday was 94-3. One senator — Kerry — voted present and accepted congratulations from colleagues on the Senate floor. The roll call came just hours after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved the man who has led the panel for the past four years.
Kerry could be sworn in as early as Wednesday. A welcoming ceremony is planned at the State Department on Monday.
Obama tapped Kerry, 69, the son of a diplomat, decorated Vietnam veteran and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, to succeed Clinton, who is stepping down after four years. The Massachusetts Democrat, who had pined for the job but was passed over in 2009, has served as Obama’s unofficial envoy, smoothing fractious ties with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Sen. Kerry will need no introduction to the world’s political and military leaders and will begin Day One fully conversant not only with the intricacies of U.S. foreign policy, but able to act on a multitude of international stages,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who will succeed Kerry as committee chairman.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the panel’s top Republican, called Kerry “a realist” who will deal with unrest in Egypt, civil war in Syria, the threat of al-Qaida-linked groups in Africa and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Kerry, a forceful proponent of climate change legislation, also will have a say in whether the United States moves ahead on the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada, a divisive issue that has roiled environmentalists.
Voting against Kerry were three Republicans — Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas. Absent from the vote were Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and John Hoeven, R-N.D.
“Sen. Kerry has a long history of liberal positions that are not consistent with a majority of Texans,” Cornyn said in a statement. The senator is up for re-election next year and could face a tea party challenge.
Kerry’s smooth path to the nation’s top diplomatic job stands in stark contrast to the harsher treatment for Obama’s other national security nominees — Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary and John Brennan to be CIA director.
Hagel, the former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska, faces strong opposition from some of his onetime GOP colleagues who question his support for reductions in the nuclear arsenal and cuts in defense spending. Lawmakers also have questioned whether he is sufficiently supportive of Israel and strongly opposed to any outreach to Iran.
Democrats have rallied for Hagel, and he has the announced support of at least a dozen members in advance of his confirmation hearing on Thursday. Six Republicans have said they would vote against him, with some opposing Obama’s choice even before the president’s announcement.
Brennan faces questions from the GOP about White House leaks of classified information and from Democrats about the administration’s use of drones.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., threatened to block the nomination of both men until he gets more answers from the Obama administration about the assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Graham, who earlier this month signaled he would delay Brennan’s pick, said in an interview Monday night with Fox News’ “On the Record” the he would “absolutely” block Hagel unless Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testifies about the attack in Benghazi, Libya.
Clinton testified for more than five hours last Wednesday before the House and Senate, but that wasn’t sufficient for Graham.
“Hillary Clinton got away with murder, in my view,” he said. “She said they had a clear-eyed view of the threats. How could you have a clear-eyed of the threats in Benghazi when you didn’t know about the ambassador’s cable coming back from Libya?”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters Tuesday that a hearing with Panetta on Libya is planned though the date is uncertain. Graham welcomed that news and said he would not thwart a committee vote on the nomination.
“Happy as a clam. News to me,” said Graham, who met with Hagel for 20 minutes on Tuesday.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said Panetta had not responded yet to the request but that the department has been forthcoming with information. He insisted that the Hagel confirmation process move as quickly as possible.
Two former chairmen of the committee — Democrat Sam Nunn of Georgia and Republican John Warner of Virginia — plan to introduce Hagel, according to officials close to the confirmation process. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the committee has not formally made an announcement.
As a White House emissary, Kerry has tamped down diplomatic fires for Obama. He also has stepped ahead of the administration on a handful of crises. He joined Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as an early proponent of a more aggressive policy toward Libya, pushing for using military forces to impose a “no-fly zone” over Libya as Moammar Gadhafi’s forces killed rebels and other citizens. He was one of the early voices calling for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down as revolution roiled the nation two years ago.
During his tenure, Kerry has pushed for reducing the number of nuclear weapons, shepherding a U.S.-Russia treaty through the Senate in December 2010, and has cast climate change as a national security threat, joining forces with Republicans on legislation that faced too many obstacles to win congressional passage.
He has led delegations to Syria and met a few times with President Bashar Assad, now a pariah in U.S. eyes after months of civil war and bloodshed as the government looks to put down a people’s rebellion. Figuring out an end-game for the Middle East country would demand all of Kerry’s skills.
The selection of Kerry closes a political circle with Obama. In 2004, it was White House hopeful Kerry who asked a largely unknown Illinois state senator to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic convention in Boston, handing the national stage to Obama. Kerry lost that election to President George W. Bush. Four years later, Obama was the White House hopeful who succeeded where Kerry had failed.
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