Senate confirms John Kerry, a foreign-policy buff who has Obama's trust

The Senate voted 94-to-3 to confirm John Kerry as secretary of State. He has Obama's trust and appears in sync with him on policy, but the president may be primarily focused on domestic affairs.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., emerges after a unanimous vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approving him to become America's next top diplomat, replacing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday.

The Senate confirmed John Kerry Tuesday as President Obama’s second secretary of state – granting Senator-turned-Secretary Kerry a nearly lifelong wish.

At the same time, Kerry’s confirmation to take over for outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sparks questions about what the foreign-policy buff will be able to accomplish under a domestic-policy-focused White House.

Kerry sailed to confirmation on a 94-to-3 vote, just hours after the Foreign Relations Committee he chaired for four years recommended him to the Senate with a unanimous vote. The Massachusetts Democrat is expected to almost immediately take over from Secretary Clinton, whose last scheduled day on the job is Friday.

A smiling Kerry, who was on the Senate floor as the vote was taken, waved to his colleagues and acknowledged their applause as the results were announced. Voting no were three Republicans: Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas and James Inhofe of Oklahoma. Kerry voted “present.”

Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York prefaced a turn to other business by saying the Senate is “so proud” of Kerry, adding, “For John Kerry, the best is yet to come.”

After the earlier committee vote, Kerry said he hoped the support he received from all the panel’s Democrats and Republicans was a harbinger of much-needed bipartisanship on the issues America faces abroad. “There is so much on the plate that all of us need to find a way to work together,” Kerry said. “I hope this is a symbol that all of us are ready to do that.”

At his confirmation hearing last week, Kerry spoke of Syria’s civil war and climate change as two issues he plans to give immediate attention. Since that hearing, events in Egypt have no doubt moved that key Middle Eastern country up on the to-do list.

And then there are the prospects for imminent international negotiations with Iran over its advancing nuclear program.

But Kerry also suggested that he is largely in sync with Mr. Obama’s foreign-policy pragmatism.

When his friend Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona called for more robust US intervention in Syria than what has occurred in Obama’s first term, Kerry countered with a list of factors that he said argue for a cautious approach.

At one of her last events as secretary of state Tuesday morning, Clinton said in a video question-and-answer session with young people from around the world that she saw an opening for Kerry to press for progress in the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. Clinton referred to the results of Israel’s elections last week, which revealed an increase in support for centrist parties.

But some foreign-policy analysts in Washington say they expect the White House to keep the same tight reins on top foreign policy issues with Kerry at the State Department as it did during Clinton’s four years.

Others point out that Obama, who in 2009 was not that far removed from a bruising primary battle with Clinton, had to learn to trust his secretary of state and to grow into relying on her for advice – which many White House officials and close observers say he did (Obama acknowledged as much in an appearance with Clinton on “60 Minutes” last Sunday).

But they say Kerry starts out with Obama’s confidence, pointing out that he already served as an informal special White House envoy to both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in each case at particularly delicate moments.

Kerry’s diplomatic skills were acknowledged when Pakistan, through its embassy in Washington, became one of the first countries to congratulate Kerry on his confirmation as secretary of state.

Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, Sherry Rehman, said in a statement that the US-Pakistan relationship has “recently taken an important turn for a more stable trajectory,” and that Pakistan looks forward to working with Kerry “at a time of challenging transitions for our region.”

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