WASHINGTON - Democratic Sen. John Kerry stands tall as President Barack Obama's good soldier. And Obama seems likely to reward that by nominating him, perhaps in the coming days, to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as the top U.S. diplomat.
The Massachusetts lawmaker and former Democratic presidential nominee has flown to Afghanistan and Pakistan numerous times to tamp down diplomatic disputes. He has spent hours drinking tea and taking walks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai or engaging in delicate negotiations in Islamabad.
It's a highly unusual role for a Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman: envoy with a special but undefined portfolio.
The 69-year-old Kerry has pushed the White House's national security agenda in the Senate with mixed results. He successfully ensured ratification of a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia in 2010 and most recently failed to persuade Republicans to back a U.N. pact on the rights of the disabled.
Throughout this past election year, he skewered Obama's Republican rival, Mitt Romney, at nearly every opportunity, played the role of Romney in Obama's debate preparation, and was a vocal booster for the president's re-election. Kerry memorably told delegates at the Democratic National Convention in August: "Ask Osama bin Laden if he's better off now than he was four years ago."
The prospects for Kerry for secretary of state soared last week when U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, a top contender for the post, withdrew from consideration to avoid a fierce fight with Senate Republicans over the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
A Kerry nomination has been discussed with congressional leaders, and consultations between the White House and congressional Democrats have centred on the fate of his Senate seat, according to officials familiar with the situation who were not authorized to publicly discuss the talks. If the seat were in play, it could boost the prospects for recently defeated Republican Sen. Scott Brown to win back a Senate seat.
At the same time, Obama is considering one of Kerry's former Senate colleagues, Republican Chuck Hagel, for the Pentagon's top job.
The selection of Kerry would close a political circle with Obama. In 2004, it was White House hopeful Kerry who asked a largely unknown Illinois state senator to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic convention in Boston, handing the national stage to Obama. Kerry lost that election to President George W. Bush. Four years later, Obama was the White House hopeful who succeeded where Kerry had failed.
Senate colleagues in both parties say Kerry's confirmation would be swift and near certain, another remarkable turnaround. Eight years ago, the Republicans ridiculed Kerry as a wind-surfing, flip-flopper as he tried and failed to unseat Bush.
"If he is nominated, he comes into the position with a world of knowledge. He's someone who certainly understands how the legislative process works and I think he will be someone that Congress will want to work with in a very positive way," said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who is poised to become the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee next year.
Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said "there's no question he has a very strong depth of knowledge of these issues. Certainly qualified."
Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, has taken to jokingly referring to Kerry as "Mr. Secretary."
Kerry and McCain, defeated presidential candidates who returned to the Senate, have joined forces repeatedly during the past few decades. In July 1995, the two decorated Vietnam War veterans provided political cover to President Bill Clinton when he normalized U.S. relations with Vietnam. Clinton had been dogged by questions about his lack of military service.
Last year, Kerry and McCain were outspoken in pushing for a no-fly zone over Libya as Moammar Gadhafi's forces attacked rebels and citizens. This month, they stood together in arguing for the U.N. disabilities treaty against staunch Republican opposition and complaints that it could undermine U.S. national sovereignty.
The pact fell five votes short of the two-thirds vote needed for ratification, and Kerry called it "one of the saddest days I've seen" in his years in the Senate.
Kerry has travelled extensively for the administration, to Afghanistan in May as a strategic partnership agreement loomed large in the decade-plus war. He was in Pakistan last year in the midst of a diplomatic crisis after Raymond Davis, a CIA-contracted American spy, was accused of killing two Pakistanis.
This year, Kerry has presided over committee hearings on treaties and other major issues, but there has been little legislative work. He didn't draw much attention to the committee, avoiding possible embarrassments for the administration in an election year.
Democratic Sen. Chris Coons said Kerry's deliberate work is often behind the scenes.
"The role of the chairman ... is not always getting your picture taken with George Clooney, standing around with heads of state, going to receptions in Foggy Bottom," he said. "It's also lots and lots of time listening to folks who've got concerns whether it's on behalf of the defence community, the business community, the diplomatic community and being the person who's at the intersection of all that and trying to keep the Senate productively engaged in a very dangerous world with a lot of emerging threats."
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in Boston contributed to this report.
Donna Cassata can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DonnaCassataAP
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