The Senate confirmation hearing of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was sure to be a donnybrook.
Powerful Republicans, still miffed about the drubbing they took in the November election, would attack the nominee for secretary of state on several fronts: Foreign contributions to her husband’s charity, her flip-flop on the Iraq war (like the chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, Sen. John Kerry, she was for it before she was against it), her boss’s plan to meet with leaders of rogue nations such as Iran and Cuba.
Mincing no words, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski got right to it.
“I’d like your comments here this morning on the evolving role of the Arctic,” the Alaska senator said softly.
“Senator,” the soon-to-be secretary of state said, “as I have said to you before, even when you and your husband hosted Senator [John] McCain’s [congressional delegation] when we were in Alaska, and saw for ourselves some of the changes that are going on in the Arctic - both on land and in the sea - you have been a leader on this issue and I hope your time has come.”
Sen. Richard G. Lugar, a Republican who voted in 1999 to oust Mrs. Clinton’s husband from office as the first step in the “cleansing of the presidency,” pulled out the big artillery during his interrogation of President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee.
“Nearly 1 billion people are presently food insecure,” the Republican pit bull said. “There is no reason why people should be hungry when we have the knowledge, technology and resources to make everyone food secure.”
Mrs. Clinton, secure in her chair, said nothing.
Just like that, Tuesday’s touted slug fest turned into a love fest.
While Democrats were expected to go easy on her, certainly they would grill her about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Obama administration’s stance on Gaza, and Russia’s aggression against its neighbors.
But Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin decided to ask the nominee if she would “consider ways to address the challenges faced by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees” of the State Department.
Mrs. Clinton said she would.
While the post of secretary of state is a president’s most important Cabinet appointment, many senators just couldn’t make it to the confirmation hearing. At one point in the afternoon session, 11 of the 12 chairs for the committee’s Republicans sat empty (the senators may have been busy seeking their own food security).
After lunch, with all the senators food secure, Sen. David Vitter tried to take Mrs. Clinton to task. Foreign contributions made to former President Bill Clinton‘s charity, said the Louisiana Republican, pose “a lot of conflict of interest issues.” But Mrs. Clinton did not defend herself: Instead, Mr. Kerry stepped in.
“I think you need to give the senator an opportunity to give you an answer,” he said.
More than half of the reporters who attended the morning session skipped the afternoon. When Mr. Kerry had given every senator a chance to ask questions, just three from both parties were in their chairs: Mr. Vitter, Mr. Lugar, the ranking member, and New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who had just come into the room.
“Since the crowd is not clamoring for a second round, we may be able to make some good progress,” Mr. Kerry said.
The day also brought an odd moment. Mrs. Clinton wanted to be president; so did Mr. Kerry. So the former first single-handedly elected the new committee chairman to the highest office in the land.
“Well, Mr. President,” she said at one point before catching herself.
“I’ll take that,” the long-faced Mr. Kerry said with a laugh.
“It was a Freudian slip,” she joked back.
“We’re both subject to those,” he said to laughter from the crowd.
In fact, there were four one-time presidential hopefuls gathered in the small hearing room in the Hart Senate Office Building. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, who dropped out early in last year’s Democratic race, was there, as was Mr. Lugar who garnered a whopping .83 percent of the vote in the 1996 primary (finishing just above “undeclared” at .80 percent).
Even though a member of Elite 100 hadn’t been elected president since JFK in 1960, Mr. Kerry pointed out that America not only elected a senator president, but vice president, too. But Mr. Kerry had some advice for the others in the room.
“Before any of the newer members of our committee get too excited about future prospects, Dick Lugar, Chris Dodd, myself and perhaps even Hillary will join in this saying, ‘Trust us, it ain’t automatic.’ ”