WASHINGTON — Democratic Sen. John Kerry stands tall as President Barack Obama's good soldier.
The Massachusetts lawmaker has flown to Afghanistan and Pakistan numerous times to tamp down diplomatic disputes, spending 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.
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 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 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."
Obama seems likely to reward all that work by nominating the 69-year-old Kerry, perhaps in the coming days, to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as the nation's top diplomat. The prospects for the five-term senator 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.
A Kerry nomination has been discussed with congressional leaders, and consultations between the White House and congressional Democrats have centered 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 job in Washington.
At the same time, Obama is considering one of Kerry's former Senate colleagues, Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, 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 GOP 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.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., 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, R-Ariz., 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.
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