WASHINGTON — The Senate Tuesday confirmed President Obama’s nomination of Senator John F. Kerry to be secretary of state, handing the Massachusetts Democrat a redemptive career victory that ensconces him in an elite echelon of national leadership nine years after his failed bid for the presidency.
The 94 to 3 vote was the final hurdle for Kerry, whose nomination soared through the Senate after Obama’s first choice of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice encountered stiff GOP opposition and never got off the ground.
Kerry met virtually no resistance, as his colleagues on both sides of the aisle lauded his 28 years of service in the Senate and his deep experience in international affairs, most recently as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is expected to give a farewell speech in the Senate on Wednesday and will be sworn in as Hillary Clinton’s replacement in a Department of State ceremony later this week.
Little suspense hung on the proceedings after Kerry cruised through a confirmation hearing last week before the Foreign Relations Committee. The accolades and ceremony began when the committee — in just 10 minutes Tuesday morning with almost no discussion — approved Kerry’s nomination and set up the late afternoon vote by the full Senate. Even harsh administration critics such as Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky joined the unanimous voice vote in committee.
“You’re going to be an incredible secretary of state,’’ declared acting committee chairman Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat, who cited Kerry’s “lightning speed’’ approval by the committee.
“Thank you all, very very much,’’ Kerry told his fellow committee members. “I’m honored beyond words.’’
He gripped hands and clasped shoulders with Republicans and Democrats alike, and gave a bear hug on his way out of the room to Bertie H. Bowman, a longtime committee aide who was an assistant clerk of the committee more than four decades ago when Kerry testified before the committee in 1971 as a Vietnam veteran and anti-war protester.
“He’s my man,’’ an emotional Bowman said after Kerry had left the committee room for the last time.
The three nay votes in the full Senate vote cast by Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas, John Cornyn of Texas, and James Inhofe of Oklahoma. Kerry abstained.
Kerry attended his last meeting of the Senate Democratic caucus and spoke in the closed-door meeting about his hopes to continue working with Congress on foreign-policy aims. He won enthusiastic applause that could be heard from outside the heavy oak doors of the caucus room.
“This is a great way for him to take his public career to a new level,’’ said Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the Senate majority whip. In a floor speech later, Durbin recalled how Kerry and fellow Veteran and former prisoner of war John McCain, helped win Senate confirmation in 1997 of the first postwar U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Pete Peterson, who also was a Vietnam POW. At the time, in the face of opposition of some veterans groups, Kerry said dispatching an ambassador showed that America was ready to start treating Vietnam “as a country’’ and not “as a war.’’
Kerry’s confirmation clears the way for Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to name an interim senator to serve in Kerry’s seat until Massachusetts voters can pick a successor in a special election.
The day’s events provided a bipartisan respite from the intense, bitter feuds that have marked Capitol Hill discourse for the last two years. Republican senators who supported Kerry’s confirmation were among the same lawmakers who scuttled his efforts to win climate legislation and even shot down Kerry’s proposal to ratify an international treaty to recognize the rights of the physically and mentally disabled.
Kerry maintained a strict radio silence about his prospects for the top diplomatic post in recent months, as speculation swirled about his long-standing interest in the job and as Rice’s prospects flamed out. Kerry Tuesday was finally looking ahead, reporting that he attended a breakfast meeting about the Middle East, where Israel, Syria, Iran, Egypt, and other volatile diplomatic problems await. Northern Africa, China, and North Korea obviously will be high on his agenda.
In addition to his diplomatic role, the career lawmaker will face significant administrative challenges, such as the security failures in Benghazi, Libya that contributed to the violent death of four Americans last year. The Department of State has a budget of about $50 billion, more than 50,000 American and foreign employees, and nearly 300 embassies, consulates, missions, and other posts around the world.