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John Kerry's gold-plated consolation prize

For most senators, assuming the chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee would be the pinnacle of a public service career. For John Kerry, it is a bit of a gold-plated consolation prize.
Image: John Kerry
Sen. John Kerry begins his tenure as head of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.Mian Khursheed / Reuters
/ Source: The New York Times

For most senators, assuming the chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee would be the pinnacle of a public service career. For John Kerry, it is a bit of a gold-plated consolation prize.

After being edged out of the White House in 2004 by President Bush, Mr. Kerry has struggled to find his footing back in the Senate. A junior member of his panel — one Barack Obama — has gone on to win the presidency. For his secretary of state, Mr. Obama chose not Mr. Kerry, but Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Now Mr. Kerry’s first hearing as chairman on Tuesday will be to consider the nomination of Mrs. Clinton, the woman he did not endorse for president, to the premier cabinet position in the administration of the man he did back. It cannot be the outcome he had in mind.

Yet colleagues say Mr. Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat newly elected to a fifth term, is a perfect fit for the chairmanship of a committee that set his own political career in motion in 1971 when he appeared before it as an antiwar veteran to speak about Vietnam. They do not expect lingering tension between Mr. Kerry and Mrs. Clinton as she assumes her cabinet slot.

“It would be foolish to think that either one of them has lost out,” said Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California and a longtime member of the panel. “I think he has landed in a good place.”

'Push and cajole'
Mr. Kerry, an acknowledged authority on many aspects of the international landscape he will be surveying, said that he was looking only forward, that too much was made of personal political wrangling, and that he was settling in for an aggressive engagement on foreign affairs in concert with the administration, or on his own if need be.

“We will not hesitate to try and push and cajole and leverage where we think we need to,” Mr. Kerry said.

Mr. Kerry had expressed strong interest in becoming secretary of state, but he said the committee offered freedom he would have never enjoyed in that post. Colleagues say no less of an expert than Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the departing chairman and incoming vice president, assured Mr. Kerry he would be better off staying on the committee.

“This is a great job,” Mr. Kerry, who turned 65 last month, said in an interview. “This is an opportunity to affect policies I have cared about for a long time. I am sitting in a terrific seat. I am independent, call my shots. There are a lot of virtues, believe me.”

Fellow members of the panel say that Mr. Kerry is thoroughly prepared for the position, given his long service on the panel and that he could put the spotlight back on the committee, which has been overshadowed in recent years by the Armed Services Committee because of the focus on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“John Kerry is one of the best-informed people on foreign policy in Washington,” said Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who would have been in line for the chairmanship had Mr. Kerry joined the cabinet. “I think this is an opportunity he has waited for for a long time. He has credibility not only within the Senate but among the American people as a very serious player.”

Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut and another senior member of the panel, agreed that Mr. Kerry’s status as a former presidential nominee could lend status to the committee. Mr. Dodd said he expected Mr. Kerry and Mrs. Clinton to become cooperative partners.

“It will work out,” Mr. Dodd said. “They are both knowledgeable people who complement one another.”

Mr. Kerry, who has consulted with Mrs. Clinton in advance of the hearing, had nothing but praise for his soon-to-be former Senate colleague. “I have great respect for her, I like her,” he said. “I think she is a terrific public servant, very skilled and capable, and she is going to do a good job at this.”

While the current focus is on the secretary of state hearing, Mr. Kerry is already looking beyond that. He has invited all the members of the panel to a dinner at his home to try to strengthen the personal relationships on the committee. Aides say his first policy hearing will be on the issue of global warming, a topic he says the Obama administration must immediately confront.

“I think we are standing on the threshold of a huge opportunity to actually get something done,” he said. “The Obama administration is going to have to get up to speed very, very quickly.”

Mr. Kerry has also moved to beef up his investigative staff, an indication that he might try to concentrate significant effort on the type of Congressional inquiries he headed earlier in his Senate career. Those committee investigations were once a hallmark of Mr. Kerry during a Congressional tenure that some believe has never fully met expectations.

Thomas Mann, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution, said the chairmanship offered an “excellent opportunity to make the mark in the Senate and in national policymaking that he has long aspired to but not yet achieved.”

Mr. Kerry said his agenda extended far beyond global warming to the multiple crises in Africa, changes in South America, conditions in Iraq, the strategic relationship with China, the Middle East and the current state of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which “frankly, are both really messy right now.”

“The challenges are just gigantic,” he said. “I really don’t approach this with anything other than the sense of the possibilities here. I think we are going to have a very different foreign policy and I think we are going to have a very different moment for America. And I look forward to having a role in it.”

This article, "Kerry, After Setbacks, Aims to Make a Mark as a Senate Chairman," first appeared in The New York Times.