Why John Kerry may have to cool his heels on Secretary of State

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Conventional wisdom has rapidly taken hold in the wake of President Obama’s reelection victory that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) is first in line of candidates to succeed Hillary Clinton as US Secretary of State.

But Obama administration officials tell the Back Channel that there are several reasons Kerry may have to cool his heels a while–having nothing to do with Kerry not being held in high esteem by the White House. Among them:

1) Secretary Clinton, who met with Obama and Vice President Biden at the White House Friday, feels an obligation to see the Benghazi investigation through and not leave any taint from that investigation to be faced by her successor. This could have her staying on til February or March, one administration source, who requested anonymity, told Al-Monitor Friday.

2) Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has told the White House that he will be “furious” if he loses Kerry from the Senate, to leave the Massachusetts Democratic Senate seat vulnerable in a special election race against Republican Scott Brown, who has millions of dollars in the bank left over from his unsuccessful Senate run against Democrat Elizabeth Warren. The White House may feel especially obliged to listen to Reid, because he is a key reason the Democrats held onto their Senate majority, and because “they have to keep Reid happy as a clam” on the fiscal cliff negotiations, the official said. (Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and his wife are due to have a ‘social’ dinner with President and Michelle Obama at the White House Friday night. But while some thought Patrick might be in position to run against Brown if a Kerry nomination leaves the Senate seat open, other sources say Patrick has his eye on the AG job.)

3) While there are important constituencies in and out of his administration pushing for Kerry, including reportedly Vice President Biden, Kerry’s predecessor as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations panel, “Obama loves” Susan Rice, his US Ambassador to the United Nations, the official noted. If Clinton stays on through the Benghazi investigation, that may blunt and defuse Congressional Republican wrath (and political opportunism) over the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attacks that has heretofore targeted Rice, among others, and that has raised concerns about whether a Rice confirmation hearing would become a huge, ugly partisan food fight. (There are also reports of CIA Director David Petraeus being at the White House Friday, and murmurs that some Hill Republicans believe the CIA has not been forthcoming about the CIA role in Benghazi. Update: Petraeus offered his resignation, citing an affair, which Obama accepted Friday. The affair, with his biographer Paula Broadwell, was uncovered by an FBI investigation, apparently of emails sent by Broadwell to a female friend of Petraeus‘ whom Broadwell perceived as a romantic rival.)

4) A Kerry departure from the Senate would leave New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez in line to assume the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—and the White House has a lot of problems with Menendez on foreign policy issues, administration sources said. On Cuba, Iran sanctions (Menendez has sponsored hawkish Iran sanctions legislation that has limited the administration’s negotiating options), Turkey (Menendez has championed efforts for an Armenia genocide resolution, that has riled Turkey), Iraq, “Menendez doesn’t play ball and has been a huge thorn” in their side, the official said.

The indications that Clinton may stay on a few months longer to see the Benghazi investigation through and that Kerry may be too hard to lose in the Senate may mean that things could look different in a few months. Sources thought it a reasonable possibility that Obama may ultimately choose neither Rice nor Kerry for the top envoy job, but someone else. “You hear Chuck Hagel”—the former Nebraska Senate Republican, among other names, the source said.

Several other moves are anticipated in the top administration foreign policy ranks over the next few months. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns may go, and is rumored to be under consideration as a possible successor to Rice as US Ambassador to the UN. Antony Blinken, top national security advisor to Vice President Biden, is expected to get a big promotion–possibly to a top tier post at State or the National Security Council, depending on possible changes at the top there. (If Tom Donilon moves to White House chief of staff, or some other slot, deputy NSA Denis McDonough and Susan Rice are presumed top contenders for National Security Advisor).

The other Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides may also leave State, and is reportedly under consideration for the White House chief of staff job, along with Donilon, if Jack Lew, as expected, is nominated to succeed Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary. Energy Secretary Chu is certain to go, as is his deputy Dan Ponneman, the latter possibly with an eye on the job of US Trade Representative.

Michele Flournoy, the former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy who served as top foreign policy advisor to the Obama campaign, is, along with Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, a top contender for Secretary of Defense, when Leon Panetta leaves, which is not anticipated before he oversees completion of tense negotiations over the sequestration/federal spending negotiations.

Howard Berman (D-CA), the longtime ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee who lost his seat this week to fellow Democrat Brad Sherman after a California redistricting plan, is a good contender for an ambassadorship, the administration source thought.

(Photo: Hillary Clinton stands with Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) as she arrives for her confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington to become the next U.S. Secretary of State January 13, 2009.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque.)