WASHINGTON – Sen. John Kerry faced a mostly friendly confirmation hearing Thursday in his bid for the secretary of state post, outlining a foreign policy agenda he says would include pressuring Iran on its nuclear program and improving outreach to Arab Spring nations -- but also urging the U.S. government to tackle the debt.
The Massachusetts Democrat gently chided Congress, where he has served for nearly three decades, for the persistent gridlock on fiscal issues. He said this failure is hurting the U.S. image and influence abroad.
"In these days of fiscal crisis ... I am especially cognizant of the fact that we can't be strong in the world unless we're strong at home," Kerry said. "The first priority will be that America, at last, puts its fiscal house in order."
The Massachusetts senator said the country is increasingly facing questions abroad about its ability to manage its own finances.
"More than ever, foreign policy is economic policy," Kerry said.
He went on to vow that, if confirmed to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he would press to resolve questions about Iran's nuclear program. "Our policy is not containment -- it is prevention, and the clock is ticking," he said.
With North Africa and the Middle East convulsing amid regime changes and civil war, Kerry said it is imperative for the U.S. to assert a "new role" in the world.
"This really is a time for American leadership," he said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., pressed Kerry to explain what the U.S. role would be. Rubio suggested that the Obama administration did not do enough to lead during the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, contributing to continued instability. Plus Rubio warned that in Syria, where the U.S. has been reluctant to get involved, the opposition will be "just as angry" at the U.S. if they overthrow Bashar Assad -- which Rubio said they would.
"There is a monumental transformation taking place," Kerry said in response. And he said the U.S. must do a "better job" of rallying people around American values and ideas. He said diplomacy cannot be conducted by drones and troops alone.
Kerry was introduced by Clinton herself, as well as fellow Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Clinton called him the "right choice." McCain lauded Kerry's qualifications, praising him in particular for his role in normalizing relations with Vietnam -- both Kerry and McCain are Vietnam veterans.
Kerry appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he chairs, a day after Clinton delivered a fiery defense of the administration's handling of the Libya attack aftermath.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who got into a dispute with Clinton on Wednesday over questionable claims made in the immediate aftermath about the nature of the Libya attack, returned to the issue Thursday.
After Clinton asked "what difference" the issue makes, Johnson said: "I think it makes a big difference. I think it matters a great deal that the American people get the truth."
Kerry answered, "If you're trying to get some daylight between me and Hillary Clinton, that's not going to happen here today."
Kerry faced a committee that seemed poised to recommend his confirmation. Of all the Cabinet nominees President Obama has selected for his second term, Kerry is considered the least controversial.
Still, Kerry is applying for one of the toughest jobs in Washington, with a portfolio that is becoming increasingly complex. As Clinton cautioned on Wednesday, the country's diplomatic work is vital to national security, particularly as Islamic extremism spreads in volatile North Africa.
The hearing is the first of three for Obama's national security nominees.
Former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, nominated for defense secretary, will face tough questions about his past statements on Israel, Iran, nuclear weapons and defense spending at his confirmation hearing next Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. John Brennan, the president's choice for CIA director, will be quizzed about White House national security leaks and the use of unmanned drones at his hearing next month.
The job of the nation's top diplomat would be the realization of a dream for Kerry, whom Obama passed over in 2008 when he chose Clinton. When Joe Biden became vice president, Kerry replaced the former Delaware senator as chairman of the committee. Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, the incoming chairman, will preside at Kerry's hearing.
Obama nominated Kerry after Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, removed her name from consideration following criticism from Republicans over her initial comments about the attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
A Fox News poll shows 54 percent of voters say they would vote to confirm Kerry to be secretary of state, while 32 percent would vote against.
Kerry, 69, is the son of a diplomat and has served as Obama's unofficial envoy, using his skills of persuasion with leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Kerry also faces questions about the Keystone XL oil pipeline, about which he'll have a major say.
More than half the Senate has urged quick approval of the pipeline, increasing the pressure on Obama to move forward on the project despite concerns from environmentalists.
"We urge you to choose jobs, economic development and American energy security," wrote 53 senators, who added that the pipeline "has gone through the most exhaustive environmental scrutiny of any pipeline" in U.S. history.
The $7 billion project would carry tar sands oil from Canada to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.
The Obama administration has twice thwarted the 1,700-mile pipeline, which Calgary-based TransCanada first proposed in late 2008. The State Department delayed the project in late 2011 after environmental groups and others raised concerns about a proposed route through environmentally sensitive land in Nebraska.
The State Department said this week it does not expect to complete a review of the project before the end of March. The State Department has jurisdiction over the pipeline because it crosses a U.S. border.
In the past, Kerry has played a major role on climate change legislation and has warned of the environmental dangers.
In advance of his hearing, Kerry said he plans to divest holdings in dozens of companies in his family's vast financial portfolio to avoid conflicts of interest if he is confirmed.
He notified the State Department earlier this month that within 90 days of his confirmation he would move to sell off holdings in three trusts benefiting him and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry. In the Jan. 8 letter to the department's Office of the Legal Adviser, Kerry said he would not take part in any decisions that could affect the companies he has holdings in until those investments are sold off.
Kerry is the wealthiest man in the Senate, worth more than $184 million, according to a 2011 Senate disclosure.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.