Senators from both parties have embraced the possibility of Senator John F. Kerry being nominated for secretary of state, a reflection of the chamber’s clubby ways, Republican interest in giving recently defeated senator Scott Brown a chance to return, and genuine respect for the Democrat’s work across the political aisle.
“I think the most important thing is that he’s well qualified,” said George Mitchell, a Maine Democrat and former Senate majority leader who served with Kerry and has led a post-political life of diplomacy and mediation.
“This won’t be a long period of apprenticeship and learning on the job,” Mitchell added. “He’s been engaged in precisely this kind of activity for quite a period of time.”
Those familiar with the process said President Obama could include Kerry in a slate of national security nominations announced as early as next week, and that Kerry could participate in a confirmation hearing in early January.
That would start the clock on a special election to permanently replace him, a campaign in which Brown would be a likely Republican candidate. It would also be the trigger for Governor Deval Patrick to appoint a senator to serve in the interim.
Patrick spoke to Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the widow of the late senator Edward M. Kennedy, shortly after last month’s elections about naming her to the Senate, according to a senior Democratic official.
Kennedy told the governor she was not interested in running for a full term. The question of an interim appointment remained unanswered.
Speaking with reporters Friday, Patrick would neither confirm nor deny the report.
The governor said, though, that he expected to follow the protocol he used after Edward Kennedy’s death in 2009, selecting an appointee who would not be a candidate in the special election.
“I’m not ruling out other options,” said Patrick. “But, as a practical matter, it’s hard for me to imagine how you could serve in the Senate for a four-month period and also run a statewide campaign in a four-month period, and do both of them well.”
Kerry returned to Boston on Friday from Washington, but he refused to comment on the possibility of getting the nomination. “When the time is right, you’ll know what’s going on and so will I,” he told a Globe reporter as he got into his car outside the US Airways Shuttle terminal at Logan Airport.
In a sensitive period between Susan Rice’s decision to bow out of contention and any formal announcement of a replacement for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kerry refused to answer when asked if he had talked to the president about the job.
The senator also would not answer when asked if he is interested in being secretary of state.
Clinton has already said she will not continue in her post for Obama’s second term. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is also expected to step down, and Obama needs to name a permanent replacement as CIA director after the scandal-driven resignation of David Petraeus.
Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations and a reported top-tier candidate for secretary of state, announced Thursday that she was dropping out for fear of fueling a political fight. Republicans had accused her of misleading them in explaining the cause of the Sept. 11 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Kerry has also been viewed as another top-tier candidate, as the son of a diplomat, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and an unofficial diplomatic emissary throughout the Obama administration to such hot spots as Afghanistan, Egypt, and Syria.
Some critics have complained that Kerry has not been diligent enough in his role as Foreign Relations chairman in examining the administration’s use of drones in the Middle East and its conduct of the war in Afghanistan.
Rice’s decision heightened attention on the prospect of a Kerry appointment, which was embraced by the chamber’s top Republican, Senate minority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as rank-and-file members.
“I think Kerry is highly qualified and highly confirmable,” said Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, a Republican with whom Kerry worked closely on a recent international disabilities treaty.
Kerry has earned similar praise from Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who led the opposition to Rice. McCain and Kerry are fellow Vietnam war veterans and worked together to normalize US relations with Vietnam, while Kerry and Graham drafted a bill on climate change in 2009.
“There’s one part of him that’s patrician, but he has developed a lot of genuine capital with his colleagues over the long run,” said Wendy Schiller, a Brown University political science professor and former aide to the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who has written extensively about the Senate.
She also said there is a tactical consideration.
“The Republicans have played this perfectly: They are anxious to get John Kerry out of that Massachusetts Senate seat and create an opportunity for Scott Brown,” Schiller said. “They have been so calculating about blocking Susan Rice, they have to confirm him.”
That said, some Republicans are gearing up to fight a Kerry nomination.
Judson Phillips, founder of TeaPartyNation.com, said Swift Boat opponents who attacked Kerry during his 2004 presidential campaign because of the senator’s opposition to the war after his service are already organizing.
“We all know Kerry wants the job. In fact, he was probably the first one jumping up and down and celebrating when Susan Rice pulled herself out of the running,” Phillips said.
“I do not want to see John Kerry as secretary of state,” Phillips told the Globe.
While senators often support one another for Cabinet appointments, some members have faced epic confirmation fights. Then-Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri was confirmed as President George W. Bush’s attorney general in 2001 after contentious hearings and with a split vote of 58 to 42.
The Senate probably won’t be taking up the nomination of her replacement until after the next session of Congress begins Jan. 3, at which point Democrats will control the chamber by a count of 55 to 45. It would take 41 votes to block a confirmation through the filibuster process.
The next secretary will have to undergo a confirmation hearing before the Foreign Relations Committee, creating the possibility of Kerry appearing before his own panel.
Senator Barbara Boxer is the next most senior Democrat on the panel, but she already serves as chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. That means the Foreign Relations chairman’s gavel would pass to the next most-senior Democrat, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
A Kerry resignation would then have a ripple effect on Massachusetts.
Patrick would have to appoint a temporary replacement while a special election campaign is held in the ensuing 145 days to 160 days.
Brown, a Republican and Kerry’s junior colleague, has indicated he will probably run, after being defeated for reelection in November by Democrat Elizabeth Warren. She would become the state’s senior senator were Kerry to resign.
A number of US House members, including Representatives Edward J. Markey and Michael Capuano, are also possible Democratic candidates in a special election.