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A Kerry Cabinet Job Spells More Combative Senate

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
The Obama administration could well decide it cannot afford to lose Kerry’s calming presence and foreign policy expertise in the Senate.

The Senate has displayed a general deference toward the Obama administration’s foreign policy in the past four years, but it could become a far more raucous and combative place if Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry is tapped to join the Cabinet.

The Massachusetts Democrat is on President Barack Obama’s short list for secretary of State or Defense, and Kerry would almost certainly breeze through confirmation (unlike another possible nominee for State, U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice).

But the White House may start to have second thoughts about nominating Kerry as it envisions a chamber that could be more willing to challenge Obama on a range of issues, from Iran to Cuba.

If Kerry leaves, the chairmanship of Foreign Relations would probably fall to Sen. Robert Menendez, the combative New Jersey Democrat. Although California Democrat Barbara Boxer stands next in line after Kerry in seniority, she is unlikely to give up her position as chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

“If the chair opens up, it will go to Menendez, no question,” said a Democratic member of the committee, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal committee dynamics.

The difference in style between Kerry and Menendez couldn’t be greater. The patrician Kerry is known for his diplomatic skills, his long, detailed speeches, and his loyalty to Obama on foreign policy issues. Menendez, the only Hispanic Democrat in the Senate, is blunt and an aggressive interrogator during hearings. He also doesn’t mind going against the administration, as he has done over the past year in pushing — and winning — ever tougher sanctions against Iran.

“He’s a bull in a china shop, a street fighter,” said a senior aide for the Senate Banking Committee, on which Menendez also serves.

The focus of the Foreign Relations committee likely would shift significantly under a Menendez chairmanship, panel aides say. Menendez, together with Illinois Republican Mark S. Kirk, is expected to continue his efforts to sanction Iran as punishment for continuing its nuclear enrichment program. Menendez led the charge over the past two years to cripple Iran’s economy — moves he says strengthen the administration’s hand in any negotiations with Iran but which some critics say only convince Tehran’s leaders that the real aim of the sanctions is to bring down the regime.

Since last December, the Senate overwhelmingly passed three rounds of Iran sanctions over the objections of the White House, which has sought to preserve its dominance over foreign policy.

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