By Julian Pecquet - 01/24/13 03:36 PM EST
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) vowed Thursday to build on Hillary Clinton's “superb” record if he's confirmed to replace her as secretary of State.
“Secretary Clinton has been superb and we all thank her for a job well done and for her tireless efforts on behalf of the nation,” Kerry said before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “She has set a high mark for her stewardship of the State Department and her commitment to country. I can pledge that, with the consent of the Senate, I will do everything in my power to build on her record and the president's vision.”
Clinton was on hand at Thursday’s hearing to introduce Kerry, who is expected to sail through a confirmation vote early next week and join President Obama’s Cabinet.
She called Kerry “the right choice," someone who has built relations with foreign leaders around the world, and recalled phoning Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to delay votes so Kerry could remain in Afghanistan and continue negotiations with President Hamid Karzai.
“The State Department and USAID [the U.S. Agency for International Development] have a lot of unfinished business, from Afghanistan to non-proliferation to climate change,” Clinton said.
In contrast to Wednesday's tense session with Clinton, there was a collegial atmosphere in the hearing room for Kerry, who is testifying before a committee of which he is chairman.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) reminisced about working with Kerry on missing prisoners of war and helping renew ties with Vietnam. Other senators likewise offered kind words.
Kerry vowed to meet with all his former colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in order to build bipartisan support for the State Department's efforts to increase U.S. influence around the world. The first order of business, he said, is for Congress to deal with the economy and the national debt.
“We can’t be strong in the world unless we are strong at home — and the first priority of business, which will affect my credibility as a diplomat working to help other countries create order, is whether America at last puts its own fiscal house in order,” he said.
“My plea is that we can summon across party lines, without partisan diversions, an economic patriotism which recognizes that American strength and prospects abroad depend on American strength and results at home. It is hard to tell the leadership of any number of countries they must get their economic issues resolved if we don't resolve our own.”
Kerry said he would strive to continue Clinton's efforts to improve America's image abroad, which has suffered somewhat of late, partly due to outrage over drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere.
“President Obama and every one of us here knows that American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone. We cannot allow the extraordinary good we do to save and change lives to be eclipsed entirely by the role we have had to play since Sept. 11 , a role that was thrust upon us,” Kerry said.
Kerry reiterated that the administration won't allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. The issue has flared anew following Obama's nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) as secretary of Defense. Hagel in the past had recommended negotiating with Iran.
“The president has made it definitive — we will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Kerry said. “I repeat here today: Our policy is not containment. It is prevention, and the clock is ticking on our efforts to secure responsible compliance.”
A protester wearing a pink hat briefly interrupted the hearing after Kerry's opening statement, shouting, “We want peace with Iran” and “My friends are dying in the Middle East.” She was escorted out by U.S. Capitol Police without further incident.
Kerry didn't miss a beat and said he agreed with her concerns. He said he was in a similar situation when he first came to national attention protesting the war in Vietnam 40 years ago.
"When I first came to Washington and testified, I obviously was testifying as part a group of people who came here to have their voices heard, and that is, above all, what this place is about," he said. "I respect … the woman who was voicing her concerns about that part of the world."
“People [around the world] measure what we do, and in a way that's a good exclamation point to my testimony.”
Asked by acting chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) if he was committed to fully implementing congressional sanctions against Iran, Kerry said yes. He said he was “willing to engage in bilateral efforts,” however.
“If their [nuclear] program is peaceful,” Kerry said, “they can prove it.”
This story was last updated at 11:16 a.m.