Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) staunchly defended former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel's bid to become secretary of defense during his own confirmation hearing today to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the committee new ranking Republican, raised the issue of Hagel's stance on nuclear weapons reductions during Kerry's hearing. Corker, a longtime advocate of increased funding for nuclear weapons and nuclear modernization funding, counts among his constituents the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. He lamented that if Hagel is confirmed, both the secretary of state and secretary of defense might support further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
"[Hagel] was part of a group called Global Zero, and for those of us who care deeply about our nuclear arsenal and modernization and that type of thing, some of the things that were authored in this report candidly are concerning," Corker said, referring the report of the Global Zero Commission, of which Hagel was a member. "Typically, there's a tension. The Defense Department presses for weaponry and making sure that our country is safe. The State Department presses for nuclear arms agreements and reductions. And so in the event this person is confirmed, that balance is not going to be there."
Kerry said he was not anticipating a Hagel question, but was happy to take it on. He defended Hagel personally and also said he supports the eventual, but not the immediate, reduction of nuclear weapons around the world.
"I know Chuck Hagel, and I think he is a strong, patriotic former senator, and he will be a strong secretary of defense. And I have dealt with him in any number of fora. He's been the head of the Atlantic Council. That is a mainstream, thoughtful foreign policy/security engagement," Kerry said. "And I think some of the things that have been, you know, some of the efforts to color Senator Hagel's approach on some of these things don't do justice."
Kerry then said that he's a believer in nuclear deterrence and he didn't believe that the world can eliminate nuclear weapons any time in the near future.
"But the whole point is, they're not talking about today's world... It's a goal. It's an aspiration. And we should always be aspirational. But it's not something that could happen in today's world," he said. "You know, it's worth aspiring to, but we'll be lucky if we get there in however many centuries the way we're going. "And so I think we have to be realistic about it, and I think Senator Hagel is realistic about it."
Hagel's confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing is scheduled for Jan. 31. Hagel has been meeting with senators on Capitol Hill this week.
Kerry's opening statement was a call for the Senate to come together on a bipartisan basis, fix its ongoing dysfunction, and make progress in economic stabilization as a means of shoring up American's international stature.
"More than ever, foreign policy is economic policy," he said. "My plea is that we can summon across party lines without partisan diversions, an economic patriotism which recognized that American strength and prospects abroad depend on American strength and prospects at home."
Kerry also took the opportunity to joke with his committee colleagues.
"I have never seen such a distinguished and good looking group of Republican senators in my life," he said. "This seems to be the one issue in Washington that unites Democrats and Republicans: to get me out of the Senate quickly."
Sitting directly behind Kerry during his testimony were two of his most senior staffers, Bill Danvers and Andrew Keller, both of whom could potentially follow Kerry to Foggy Bottom. Danvers is the committee's chief of staff and Keller is the committee's chief counsel.
Kerry was introduced by three officials, freshman Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Clinton, and new SFRC member Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). Warren told the story of Kerry's advocacy on behalf of Colin Bower, a father from Newton, MA, whose two sons were taken to Egypt by his ex-wife and are now outside the reach of the U.S. custody dispute system.
"John even called former President Mubarak and had a screaming match with him about it. Five times he's been to Egypt since then, and every time Colin has been at the top of his list in every meeting," she said.
McCain said his respect for Kerry originated from their shared service on a 1991 select committee to investigate the fate of prisoners of war from Vietnam. Both men are Vietnam war veterans. McCain said the success of that committee led to the two of them subsequently working successfully with the Clinton administration to normalize relations with Vietnam.
"John led the committee with fairness to all sides, with persistence in the pursuit of the truth and with an absolute, unshakable resolve to get a result that all members could accept. Really, no matter how contentious and at times crazy things got, John always believed he would eventually get all the committee to see reason and provide an answer that would be accepted by most veterans and most, if not all, Americans who cared so much about the issue," McCain said. "And he did."
During Kerry's opening remarks, he was interrupted by a protester from the anti-war group Code Pink, who was evicted from the hearing room while screaming anti-war opinions. Kerry said that his first testimony to Congress was as a protester and so he supported the woman's right to have her say.
"That is, above all, what this place is about," he said. "People measure what we do, and in a way that's a good exclamation point to my testimony."
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John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.