December 14, 2012 11:30:40 AM
WASHINGTON -- Democratic Sen. John Kerry, who unsuccessfully sought the presidency in 2004 and has pined for the job of top diplomat, vaulted to the head of President Barack Obama's short list of secretary of state candidates after U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice suddenly withdrew from consideration to avoid a contentious confirmation fight with emboldened Republicans.
The exit of Rice and elevation of Kerry shook up Washington on Thursday and was coupled with the potential for even bolder second-term changes in Obama's national security team next month. Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, emerged as the front-runner to serve as defense secretary.
The possible selection of Kerry and Hagel would put two decorated Vietnam War veterans -- one Navy, the other Army -- at State and the Pentagon.
Official word on replacements for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in an Obama Cabinet remake could come as early as next week. The choice of Kerry would open a Massachusetts Senate seat, boosting the prospects for recently defeated Republican Sen. Scott Brown to win back a job in Washington.
Kerry, a senator for nearly three decades and the current Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, has won praise from his Senate Democratic and Republican colleagues and should be confirmed easily, if nominated. He has been Obama's envoy to hot spots such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, the administration's point man in 2010 on a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia and was a stand-in for Republican Mitt Romney during Obama's debate preparation.
Hagel was a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee during his years in the Senate. He and Obama became close while they served in the Senate and traveled overseas together. Hagel has irked some in the GOP with his complaints that the party has moved too far to the right and for his endorsements of Democrats, most recently Bob Kerrey in last month's Nebraska Senate race.
"He's a combat vet who was wounded twice and understands that the decisions we make here are carried out by our young men and women" in the military, said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of the Armed Services Committee.
It would be highly unusual for Hagel's political moves to sink his nomination, even in bitterly divided Washington.
But Democrats blamed politics for Rice's demise as a possible candidate. They clearly insinuated that Republicans who failed to get any traction in using the deadly September attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, to derail Obama's re-election bid instead took down Rice.
She "deserved far more respect than she was shown by certain Senate Republicans," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a blistering statement late Thursday. "Their behavior was a disgrace to the Senate's tradition of bipartisan cooperation on national security issues and beneath the stature of senators with otherwise distinguished records on national security.
"I hope that moving forward, senators will act based on fact-finding and serving the public interest, not advancing partisan political agendas or settling old scores," Reid said.
In the past month, Arizona Sen. John McCain, Obama's Republican presidential rival in 2008, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., had been Rice's harshest critics, threatening to block her nomination. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., expressed serious concerns. The most damaging blow, however, came from Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a moderate Republican who voiced doubts not only about Rice in her current job but also when she was a State Department official during the Clinton administration.
All four met with Rice in unusual, private sessions on Capitol Hill where she failed to mollify her critics.
Rice had been widely assailed for a series of Sunday talk show interviews five days after the consulate attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Relying on intelligence community talking points, she attributed the cause of the raid to widespread protests throughout the Middle East over an anti-Muslim video rather than a terrorist attack by al-Qaida affiliates.