Kerry testifies before panel he chairs

DONNA CASSATA Associated Press Published:

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Sen. John Kerry, President Barack Obama's nominee for secretary of state, said Thursday that the United States must get its fiscal house in order to lead worldwide, as lawmakers signaled his confirmation was a foregone conclusion.

"More than ever, foreign policy is economic policy," Kerry said in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

It was an odd juxtaposition. Kerry has served on the committee during his entire 28 years in the Senate and has chaired the panel for the last four. On Thursday, he sat at the witness table, his voice cracking from emotion at times, facing his colleagues and friends.

Obama chose Kerry to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who introduced the senator.

"John is the right choice," Clinton told the panel. "He will bring a record of leadership and service that is exemplary."

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the incoming chairman who presided over the confirmation hearing, noted that Kerry was the first senator on the panel in a century to ascend to the Cabinet post. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the panel's ranking Republican, told Kerry, "you've almost lived your entire life for this moment."

In his testimony, Kerry stressed that the United States must thwart any Iranian ambition to develop a nuclear weapons, saying containment is not an option.

The policy "is prevention and the clock is ticking on our efforts to secure responsible compliance," Kerry said.

A lone protester shouting about the Middle East interrupted the hearing. Just as Kerry completed his prepared testimony, the woman began shouting about the Middle East and was escorted from the room.

The Vietnam War, a long, bitter conflict that decimated a generation of draft-age men, played a prominent role at the hearing.

In his testimony, Kerry alluded to his controversial moment before the committee some 42 years ago, when the decorated Vietnam veteran testified about his opposition to the war, and famously asked, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

"Today I can't help but recognize that the world itself then was in many ways simpler, divided as it was along bi-polar, Cold War antagonisms," Kerry said. "Today's world is more complicated than anything we have experienced -- from the emergence of China to the Arab Awakening: inextricably linked economic, health, environmental and demographic issues" as well as issues such as proliferation.

McCain, who also introduced Kerry, said the roots of their friendship was their work on a committee seeking to resolve the status of POWs and missing in action from Vietnam as well as efforts to ensure normal U.S. relations with Vietnam during President Bill Clinton's administration.

"Helping to establish a relationship with Vietnam that serves American interests and values rather than one that remained mired in mutual resentment and bitterness is one of my proudest accomplishments as a senator, and I expect it is one of John's as well," McCain said. "Working toward that end with John, and witnessing almost daily his exemplary statesmanship is one of the highest privileges I've had here."

The hearing is the first of three for Obama's national security nominees, and the least controversial.

Former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, nominated for defense secretary, will face tough questions about his past statements on Israel, Iran, nuclear weapons and defense spending at his confirmation hearing next Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. John Brennan, the president's choice for CIA director, will be quizzed about White House national security leaks and the use of unmanned drones at his hearing next month.

The job of the nation's top diplomat would be the realization of a dream for Kerry, whom Obama passed over in 2008 when he chose Clinton. When Joe Biden became vice president, Kerry replaced the former Delaware senator as chairman of the committee.

Obama nominated Kerry after Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, removed her name from consideration following criticism from Republicans over her initial comments about the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Kerry, 69, is the son of a diplomat and has served as Obama's unofficial envoy, using his skills of persuasion with leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Although a rough hearing is unlikely, Kerry will be pressed about the civil war in Syria and other hot spots, foreign aid and the Keystone XL oil pipeline, about which he'll have a major say.

More than half the Senate has urged quick approval of the pipeline, increasing pressure on Obama to move forward despite concern from environmentalists. The $7 billion project would carry tar sands oil from Canada to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.

The Obama administration has twice thwarted the 1,700-mile pipeline, which Calgary-based TransCanada first proposed in late 2008. The State Department delayed the project in late 2011 after environmental groups and others raised concerns about a proposed route through environmentally sensitive land in Nebraska.

The State Department said this week it does not expect to complete a review of the project before the end of March. The State Department has jurisdiction over the pipeline because it crosses a U.S. border.

In the past, Kerry has played a major role on climate change legislation and has warned of environmental dangers.

In advance of his hearing, Kerry said he plans to divest holdings in dozens of companies in his family's vast financial portfolio to avoid conflicts of interest if he is confirmed.

He notified the State Department earlier this month that within 90 days of his confirmation he would move to sell off holdings in three trusts benefiting him and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry. In the Jan. 8 letter to the department's Office of the Legal Adviser, Kerry said he would not take part in any decisions that could affect the companies he has holdings in until those investments are sold off.

Kerry is the wealthiest man in the Senate, worth more than $184 million, according to a 2011 Senate disclosure.

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Associated Press writers Matthew Daly and Stephen Braun contributed to this report.