By David Jackson, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON, D.C. (USA TODAY) - Secretary of State-designate John Kerry glided though a confirmation hearing Thursday, pledging to prevent Iran from securing a nuclear weapon and urging Congress to end "gridlock" over the domestic economy.
On Iran, "our policy is not containment, it is prevention," Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a four-hour hearing.
In promising to keep the United States strong in the world, Kerry told Senate colleagues that includes resolving congressional disputes over the federal debt and other fiscal issues.
"Now more than ever, foreign policy is economic policy," Kerry said.
While senators from both parties predicted quick confirmation for Kerry, the warm feelings weren't unanimous: Police had to remove a protester who yelled about U.S. policy toward the Middle East.
After the protester's ejection, Kerry, 69, cited the need for all voices to be heard; he also referred to his own first appearance before Congress, as a Vietnam protester in 1971.
At another point, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., again criticized the Obama administration for changing stories after the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.
Johnson and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had argued over the State Department's talking points during a hearing Wednesday, with Clinton telling Johnson, "What difference, at this point, does it make?"
Kerry defended Clinton and the administration, and told Johnson that if he wanted to open "daylight" between him and Clinton, "that's not going to happen here today."
All that said, Johnson predicted Kerry's ultimate confirmation, as did other senators.
The top State Department job is "a position you have most deservedly earned," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., acting chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee normally led by Kerry himself. Menendez also referred to the witness as "Secretary Kerry."
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the committee's top Republican, told Kerry, "I do know that your confirmation is going to be speedy."
In discussing efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining the means to make a nuclear weapon, Kerry said he and President Obama would prefer a diplomatic solution. But he also made clear that force remains an option.
"We will do what we must do to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," Kerry said, later adding that "the clock is ticking on our efforts to secure responsible compliance."
Kerry also endorsed another, more embattled Obama nominee: Defense Secretary-designate Chuck Hagel. While some Republicans have criticized Hagel's views of Israel and Middle East policy, Kerry said the former Nebraska Republican senator "will be a strong secretary of Defense."
In formally introducing her potential successor to the committee, Clinton said Kerry has "a record of leadership and service that is exemplary."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also introducing Kerry, also praised his Senate colleague. McCain discussed their shared experience as Vietnam veterans, their work on a committee to investigate the possibility of missing POWs, and their joint support for U.S. recognition of Vietnam's government. McCain also predicted Kerry's confirmation.
Not that Kerry needed much of an introduction: The three-decade senator has been a member of the Foreign Relations Committee throughout his tenure, the last four as chairman.
During the hearing, McCain urged Kerry to back U.S. support for rebels in Syria, saying a generation of Syrians would remember American failure to help topple dictator Bashar Assad. "We are sowing the wind in Syria," McCain told Kerry. "We will reap the whirlwind."
Kerry, who discussed past outreach to Assad, called it a "complicated" issue, said said the U.S. has to be wary of "the implosion of the state in Syria," and the fate of its chemical weapons.
McCain also criticized the Obama administration over the Benghazi incident.
Other questions faced by Kerry: Relations between Israelis and Palestinians, fallout from the Arab Spring and U.S.-Russian relations.
Regarding Israel and Palestine, Kerry said: "President Obama is deeply committed to a two-state solution."
The son of a Foreign Service officer, Kerry is a Vietnam combat veteran who became a leading critic of that war. He won election as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in 1982 and claimed a U.S. Senate seat two years later. Kerry captured the Democratic nomination for president in 2004 but lost to incumbent President George W. Bush.
Another aspect of Kerry's political career: promoting the national career of Barack Obama.
In 2004, Kerry tapped Obama, then an Illinois legislator seeking a U.S. Senate seat, to keynote the Democratic convention. Four years later, Kerry endorsed Obama at a crucial point in the latter's presidential campaign, after he had lost the New Hampshire primary to Clinton.
Last year, Kerry helped Obama prepare for three debates by portraying Mitt Romney in practice sessions.
"Nothing brings two people closer together than weeks of debate prep," Obama said last month in nominating Kerry. "John, I'm looking forward to working with you instead of debating you."