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Updated Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 12:16 AM

Obama: John Kerry is 'perfect choice' for secretary of state

By Hannah Allam and David Lightman
McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Friday nominated Sen. John Kerry for secretary of state in his second term, calling the Vietnam veteran and one-time presidential contender the "perfect choice to guide American diplomacy."

Kerry's nomination was all but assured after U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, once considered a shoo-in to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton, withdrew her name from consideration amid intense Republican opposition that would have ensured an ugly Senate confirmation process.

Kerry, D-Mass., isn't likely to face such opposition, and Obama told him Friday that he was "confident the Senate will confirm you quickly."

Kerry's bigger challenge would come after confirmation, as Clinton's replacement will inherit a department that's just been slammed by an independent panel on the deadly Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. posts in Benghazi, Libya. He would be in charge of fixing the serious, systemic leadership problems the investigating panel found at State, while finding ways to boost the morale of a diplomatic corps still reeling from the killing of a popular ambassador and the fallout from the report's harsh criticisms.

There are also the Syrian civil war, North Korean posturing, Iranian nuclear ambitions, North African political transitions and strained relations with Russia, to name but a few of the urgent foreign-policy issues he'll confront, if confirmed.

Kerry also would have to manage the so-far unsuccessful effort to negotiate a political settlement to the war in Afghanistan, a conflict in which he has invested considerable personal attention.

Obama, speaking at the White House, said Kerry's military background, family ties to the Foreign Service, "extraordinarily distinguished" Senate career and chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee make him the ideal pick to serve as the nation's top diplomat.

"John's played a central role in every major foreign-policy debate for nearly 30 years," Obama said.

Obama had been expected to unveil his full national-security team Friday, but the administration has run into snags with former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a leading contender for defense secretary who's facing growing opposition related to his statements on Israel and gays. On Friday, Hagel issued an apology for remarks he made in 1998 about a gay ambassadorial nominee, saying they "do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record."

Analysts say that by announcing Kerry's nomination separately, Obama sets him apart from candidates who could face a thornier path to Senate confirmation.

Kerry, 69, and his wife, Teresa Heinz, 74, stood next to Obama as the nomination was announced but didn't make any remarks. Kerry chuckled when Obama remarked that the two had become close during weeks of debate preparation; Kerry was the stand-in for Mitt Romney in mock debates during Obama's re-election campaign.

What happens to his Senate seat? Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick would appoint a temporary senator, and an election to fill the Kerry seat would have to be held later in 2013, probably in June. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., is expected to try to regain the seat he is leaving Jan. 3; he lost it in November to Democrat Elizabeth Warren.

Several prominent Democrats could vie for the seat, including Reps. Edward Markey, Mike Capuano and Stephen Lynch. Actor Ben Affleck also has been mentioned.

Senate reaction to the Kerry nomination was overwhelmingly positive, hardly a surprise for a colleague who's been serving since 1985. Traditionally, the Senate confirms presidential appointees with strong bipartisan votes. Most senators believe voters have spoken, elected a president, and therefore he's entitled to his team.

They often won't say how they're voting to confirm before hearings, but Friday, they came awfully close.

"We have known John Kerry for many years. We have confidence in John Kerry's ability to carry out the job," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Other conservatives had similarly warm words.

"I don't anticipate any surprises," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a Foreign Relations Committee member. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Kerry was a "popular choice with the Senate."

Kerry's nomination will be considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a panel he has led for the last four years.

The hearings are likely to involve the controversy over the U.S. role in protecting Americans at the U.S. Consulate and CIA annex in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, where Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died in Sept. 11 attacks.

Sen. John Kerry brings lots of experience to job.


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