WASHINGTON — The Senate confirmed President Obama’s nomination of Senator John F. Kerry to be secretary of state on Tuesday, handing the Massachusetts Democrat a redemptive career victory that ensconces him in an elite echelon of national leadership nine years after his failed bid for the presidency.
The 94-to-3 vote was the final hurdle for Kerry, whose nomination roared through the Senate after Obama’s first choice of UN Ambassador Susan Rice encountered stiff GOP opposition and never got off the ground.
Kerry met virtually no resistance, as his colleagues on both sides of the aisle lauded his 28 years of service in the Senate and his deep experience in international affairs, most recently as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is expected to give a farewell speech in the Senate on Wednesday.
Little suspense hung over the proceedings after Kerry cruised through a confirmation hearing last week before the Foreign Relations Committee. The accolades and ceremony began Tuesday morning when the committee — in just 10 minutes with almost no discussion — approved Kerry’s nomination, setting up the late afternoon vote by the full Senate. Even harsh administration critics such as Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky joined the unanimous voice vote in committee.
In a statement, Obama said he was pleased that Kerry was confirmed with “overwhelming bipartisan support. From his decorated service in Vietnam to his decades in the Senate as a champion of American global leadership, John’s distinguished career has prepared him to guide American diplomacy in the years ahead.”
“You’re going to be an incredible secretary of state,’’ declared acting committee chairman Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, who cited Kerry’s “lightning speed’’ approval by the committee.
“Thank you all, very very much,’’ Kerry told his fellow committee members. “I’m honored beyond words.’’
He gripped hands and clasped shoulders with Republicans and Democrats alike, and gave a bear hug to Bertie H. Bowman, a longtime committee aide who was an assistant clerk of the committee more than four decades ago when Kerry testified before the panel in 1971 as a Vietnam veteran and antiwar protester.
“He’s my man,’’ an emotional Bowman said after Kerry left the committee room.
As senators trickled into the chamber later in the afternoon for the final vote, Kerry watched from his nearby office, then headed over to the Capitol accompanied by Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. After the final votes were tallied, a smattering of senators who remained in the chamber — including newly installed Elizabeth Warren — applauded warmly. The three nay votes in the full Senate vote were cast by Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas, John Cornyn of Texas, and James Inhofe of Oklahoma. Kerry abstained.
Earlier, Kerry attended his last meeting of the Senate Democratic caucus and spoke in the closed-door luncheon about his hopes to continue working with Congress on the president’s foreign policy goals.
“This is a great way for him to take his public career to a new level,’’ said Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the Senate majority whip. In a floor speech later, Durbin recalled how Kerry and fellow veteran and former prisoner of war John McCain helped win Senate confirmation in 1997 of the first postwar US ambassador to Vietnam, Pete Peterson, who also was a Vietnam POW. At the time, in the face of opposition from some veterans groups, Kerry said dispatching an ambassador showed that America was ready to start treating Vietnam “as a country’’ and not “as a war.’’
Kerry’s confirmation clears the way for Governor Deval Patrick to name an interim senator to serve in Kerry’s seat until Massachusetts voters can pick a successor in a special election in June. The announcement is expected Wednesday. Kerry’s resignation is effective at 4 p.m. Friday.
Tuesday’s events provided a bipartisan respite from the intense, bitter feuds that have marked Capitol Hill discourse for the last two years. Republican senators who supported Kerry’s confirmation were among the same lawmakers who scuttled his efforts to win climate legislation and even shot down Kerry’s proposal to ratify an international treaty to recognize the rights of the physically and mentally disabled.
Kerry maintained a strict radio silence about his prospects for the top diplomatic post in recent weeks, as speculation swirled about his long-standing interest in the job and as Rice’s prospects flamed out. In the last week, a security detail began accompanying him. On Tuesday, just hours before the vote, he was finally beginning to publicly look ahead, reporting that he attended a breakfast meeting about the Middle East, where Israel, Syria, Iran, Egypt, and other volatile diplomatic problems await. Northern Africa, China, and North Korea will be high on his agenda as well.
In addition to his diplomatic role, the career lawmaker will face significant administrative challenges, such as the security failures in Benghazi, Libya, that contributed to the violent deaths of four Americans last year, including the US ambassador to Libya. The State Department has a budget of about $50 billion, more than 50,000 American and foreign employees, and nearly 300 embassies, consulates, missions, and other posts around the world.
Plaudits and congratulations poured in for the nominee, even before he was confirmed.
“I extend our sincerest and best congratulations to Senator Kerry on his confirmation as secretary of state. We all look forward to working with him and his team at a time of challenging transitions for the region,’’ Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Sherry Rehman, said in a statement issued several hours before the full Senate vote.
Kelly Ayotte, the Republican senator from New Hampshire, said, “Senator Kerry’s strong depth of knowledge on foreign policy issues and his service as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee make him well-qualified to serve as secretary of state.’’
The Massachusetts congressional delegation also issued a flurry of congratulations — including a House member campaigning to succeed Kerry. Representative Edward J. Markey of Malden.
“Going from Hillary Clinton to John Kerry at the State Department is like the Red Sox going from Ted Williams to Carl Yastrzemski,’’ Markey said, “both possessing hall of fame talent and passion for the job.’’