Live from the Clinton Confirmation Hearing
By Glenn Kessler
It's over. Clinton clearly passed with flying colors.
"We anticipate trying to move this [Clinton's nomination] as rapidly as we can," Kerry said, most likely before the committee meets on Thursday to consider the nomination of Susan Rice as U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. He said that he was excited about working with Clinton, and then gaveled the hearing to a close.
The rounds of questions are over, and Sen. Kerry has indicated he wants to have some, more-in-depth discussions. This means he gets to talk for a very long time, without worrying about the clock. He just completed a lengthy dissertation on Afghanistan, and whether or not the United States knows what it is doing there.
Clinton knows how to start her answer: "Your cautions are very well taken. . . . "
Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) presses for an answer to the proposal he made in his opening statement, which Clinton had studiously ignored, in which the Clinton Foundation discloses certain donations sooner rather than in its annual report. He poses his query gently, and Clinton responds that she understands he "comes at this with good faith." (unlike presumably Vitter.)
But she doesn't buy his idea, suggesting that disclosing a donation long after it takes place would provide less opportunity for influence. She pledges to "keep a very close look at how this is being implemented," but Lugar is not convinced. He wants her to give more thought to amending the agreement, adding that he would rather have her solve conflict of interest questions now than deal with any possible fallout when she is secretary of State.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) finally gets Clinton to engage on the questions surrounding the Clinton Foundation. He asks whether she would consider amending the deal between Bill Clinton and the transition office to account for new contributions to the Clinton Global Initiative. She first tries to bury him in a blizzard of rhetoric, but he cuts her off and says he isn't getting his questions answered.
Kerry actually jumps in and tries to help Clinton. Both point to the answers she gave the committee already in written form, suggesting that Vitter doesn't really understand the agreement.
Vitter keeps going, saying there are "a lot of real and perceived conflict issues." It's the first blip in the hearing and Clinton, while not riled, looks a bit irritated. She notes that it's not unusual for spouses of government officials to have jobs and that all sorts of the government lawyers decided there was no real conflict. The clear signal from both Clinton and Kerry is that Vitter was not playing according to the script.
Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), who unlike most senators has sat through the entire hearing, now gets his turn. Back to the lovefest.
We're back for the second session. The questions are from the senators who rank at the bottom of the pecking order, so some of the issues can be obscure.
Clinton, in response to questions from Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), reiterated that there is a bright line for engaging with militant organizations like Hamas. The Obama administration, she said, will treat nonstate actors differently than states, so Hamas would need to renounce violence, recognize Israel and meet other tests just as a condition for talks. This is a distinction that Obama eventually outlined during the campaign -- after taking some fire from rivals like Clinton for appearing too quick to engage. "We want to be smart about how we engage," Clinton said.
Clinton is really a master at juggling the questions from the senators. In this case, Isakson tried to needle her just slightly about how he agreed with her rather than Obama on this issue during the campaign. But Clinton made it appear as if this was the president-elect's policy, which he outlined in the campaign, and she was simply following his lead. One would never know from her reply that this question was the subject of some of the sharpest disputes between Obama and Clinton in the long primary campaign.
That's it for the morning session. There was a brief flurry of excitement from the crowd when six Code Pink women who had been sitting silently with signs about Gaza stood up and started shouting, "What about Gaza? 900 people have been killed. Hillary, we need your voice!"
The women wore pink signs saying "Ceasefire in Gaza Now" and smaller white signs with the names of children killed in the conflict.
The hearing has devolved into a discussion of every senator's pet subject -- law of the sea! -- but Clinton and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) just launched an interesting discussion about the dull but important topic of foreign aid.
The problem is that the U.S. government has a huge number of aid programs and the Secretary of State has control over only some of them. The Bush folks added to the problem by creating new independent programs and then borrowing staff from USAID to help run them. Condoleezza Rice tried to bring some rationality to the problem, but Congress was not happy with some of her solutions.
Some want to create a Cabinet level agency to deal with the problem. Clinton promises a plan that will "maximize coordination" and minimize "redundancy."
While Sen. Lisa Murkowski began a long discussion on Arctic policy, I was flipping through Clinton's 79 pages of prepared answers to questions posed by the Committee. Here, there is some fulsome language on Georgia and Russia. She calls the Russian military response "disproportionate and illegal" and then devotes several long paragraphs pledging to preserve Georgia's sovereignty.
Murkowski then asked Clinton about another subject she did not raise in the opening statement -- North Korea. Clinton says she will continue to use the six-nation diplomatic framework created by Bush, but also promises "tough, reality-based diplomacy" to persuade North Korea to end its nuclear programs.
North Korea is one of the toughest issues Obama will inherit. Almost no one who is an expert on the issue thinks Pyongyang will ever give up its nukes.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) breaks with the rest of the committee on the issue of the Clinton Foundation. He doesn't see any conflict of interest and declares that the Foundation does "such good things" that it can only help her when she travels overseas.
It's an interesting argument, though the Clinton brand is already well known around the world.
Clinton has not addressed any of these concerns about the Clinton Foundation; she simply lets the senators raise their points, then pointedly ignores them when she responds. Not even Nelson's kind remarks gets a response.
Bill Clinton, by the way, is not in the room. Usually, a spouse shows up for a confirmation hearing.
Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, a Republican who is retiring, just now love-bombed Clinton and Obama. He notes that a couple of years ago he got to know retired Marine Gen. James Jones and wondered, "Why can't we get this guy in the administration?" Now, Jones is Obama's national security adviser. Voinovich goes on to heap praise on Defense Secretary Robert Gates and on Clinton herself.
He also praises her for pushing "smart power." There's that phrase again.
Without mentioning names, Clinton takes on Bush's former arms control chief (and later United Nationa ambassador) John Bolton. She declares that the arms control and nonproliferation parts of the State Department have been "degraded" on Bush's watch and she is going to "rebuild it even more robustly." She adds that she wanted the arms control and nonproliferation experts who have quit the department during the Bush years to "reenlist" and come back to Foggy Bottom.
Clinton's comments came in response to questions from the ranking Republican, Dick Lugar, who was never a fan of Bolton. "This is very good news," Lugar declared.
Foreign Relations Committee spokesman Fred Jones says that swearing in is not necessary for a sitting senator -- it's a form of professional courtesy. Let's see what happens when she becomes Secretary of State.
My colleague Paul Kane notes something I had missed: Clinton was not sworn in. I recall that Rice always had be sworn in when she testified but here, Clinton is being shown great deference.
This is a packed crowd -- including eight tables of ten reporters each -- but very quiet and respectful. Condoleezza Rice hasn't been able to go to hearing in years without protests and anger from some members of the audience. But no such drama here.
Question time has started, and Kerry goes first, with one on Iran. What kind of carrots will Iran be offered?
Clinton doesn't really answer. She notes that there is an ongoing policy review, and promises engagement. But she adds, "We won't know what we are capable of achieving until we are working on it."
Kerry presses her, noting she used weak language on Iran having a weapon, and asks if it is "unacceptable" for Iran to get a nuclear weapon as a matter of U.S. policy. Clinton quickly agrees, and adds, for a second time, "no options are off the table."
Clinton refers repeatedly to statements by Obama over the weekend on Iran, demonstrating she knows how the game is played. But she has to be careful about what she says -- every word she utters now will be carefully weighed around the world.
Clinton has a long section on the poor in the world -- the 2 billion who earn less than $2 a day -- especially the plight of women and girls. "The United States must remain an unambiguous and unequivocal voice in support of women's rights in every country, every region, on every continent," she says. Clinton also notes that Obama's mother was a pioneer in microfinance in Indonesia, and "we will be honored to carry on Ann Dunham's work in the months and years ahead."
These brief quotes do not do justice to the passion and emotion that Clinton brought to this section. And she emphasizes that Obama cares as much about this, and that the plight of the poor is "not marginal to our foreign policy but integral to accomplishing our goals."
This part of the statement was from the heart, and it is impressive. I wonder if she will be able to keep her eye on this issue even as she is overwhelmed by the problems of the day.
Some interesting language on Iran and Syria in the Clinton statement: "We must also actively pursue a strategy of smart power in the Middle East that...persuades both Iran and Syria to abandon their dangerous behavior and become constructive regional actors."
That's a big shift from Bush, who tried to isolate both countries. Clinton is suggesting that even Iran could become a "constructive regional actor." Arab nations are fearful of Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf and are wary of any kind of regional role for Tehran. My guess is that Clinton will get a long lecture on this the first time she visits Riyadh.
Clinton is speaking now. Her prepared statement runs to 16 pages, and she's surely not going to read it all when she speaks. But there are some important clues in here about where she and Obama want to go.
The top priority: "President-elect Obama is committed to responsibly ending the war in Iraq and employing a broad strategy in Afghanistan that reduces threats to our safety and enhances the prospect of stability and peace."
Note that caveat word -- "responsibly."
On Gaza, she says: "The president-elect and I understand and are deeply sympathetic to Israel's desire to defend itself under the current conditions, and to be free of shelling by Hamas rockets.... [But] the tragic humanitarian costs... must only increase our determination to seek a just and lasting peace agreement that brings real security to Israel; normal and positive relations with its neighbors; and independence, economic progress and security to the Palestinians in their own state."
There's a lot of diplobabble here that doesn't suggest a major split with the Bush administration, but the emphasis on the "tragic humanitarian costs" is interesting and suggests patience is waning with the Israel operation.
There's lots of stuff about every region in the world, but, interestingly, Russia gets a pass. Relations have been poor since the invasion of Georgia, but Clinton doesn't even mention Georgia. Here's all she says: "President-elect Obama and I seek a future of cooperative engagement with the Russian government on matters of strategic importance, while standing up strongly for American values and international norms."
She doesn't mention the recent cut off of gas to Ukraine. This passage will not make the people in Tblisi sleep well. Moscow must be thrilled.
China gets somewhat tougher words -- "much of what we do depends on the choices China makes about its future at home and abroad."
Kerry notes that Lugar was not speaking as a Republican but for the Committee as a whole, so that puts additional pressure on the Clinton Foundation.
Kerry briefly touches on the potential conflicts posed by the foundation activities of former president Bill Clinton, but leaves it to Dick Lugar, the ranking Republican, to make a tougher statement. Lugar is full of praise for Clinton, but then argues that the complex ethics review agreement worked out between Obama and the Clinton foundation just won't work. He says the foundation "exists as a temptation for any foreign entity or government that believes it could curry favor through a donation" and that "the bottom line is that even well-intentioned foreign donations carry risk for U.S. foreign policy."
So he drops a bomb: "The only certain way to eliminate this risk going forward is for the Clinton Foundation to forswear new foreign contributions when Senator Clinton becomes Secretary of State." He notes the deal worked out between Obama and Clinton, but calls it a beginning, not an end, and merely a "minimum standard."
Lugar and the Republicans are laying down a marker here. Clinton is being warned that at the first hint of a problem they will be looking for changes in the deal.
Clinton has arrived. Big hug from Sen. Chuck Schumer for Chelsea.
Sen. John Kerry brings the meeting to order. He's technically not yet the chairman because Sen. John Biden, the vice president-elect, has not officially yet resigned. Biden is in Iraq today, allowing Kerry to chair the session.
"America is back," Kerry pronounces at the start.
Kerry notes that one member of the committee is about to be president and another vice president. But he jokes that he, Dick Lugar, Chris Dodd and Clinton -- all failed presidential candidates, all in the room -- might warn new members that ascending to such heights of power is not automatic.
An explosion just now of photo shutters as Chelsea Clinton makes her arrival in a plum-colored dress. Many familiar Clinton faces here, such as Wendy Sherman, head of the State transition team, and Lee Feinstein, who had coordinated her foreign policy team during the primary campaigns.
The new spokesman for the Democratic-controlled Committee is Frederick Jones, who had been spokesman for the National Security Council under Bush. How does that happen? Fred had been in the foreign service when he worked for Bush, and a true professional, but now he's out of government and can pick sides in the policy debate.
I'll be live-blogging from the confirmation hearings on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's nomination to be Secretary of State. It's going to be a capacity crowd here in the oversized hearing room, number 216, in the Senate Hart Office Building. Don't expect fireworks -- it will be more of a lovefest -- but still, her opening statement and her answers should provide important clues as to how she will approach the job. What are her priorities at State? What does she think about current hot spots, such as the conflict in Gaza?
The transition team this morning released some excerpts from her prepared statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The quotes are below with some commentary from me, but so far this doesn't tell us much.
* Clinton says "renew America's leadership through diplomacy that enhances our security, advances our interests, and reflects our values."
This is boilerplate that every potential Secretary must say.
* "Foreign policy must be based on a marriage of principles and pragmatism, not rigid ideology. On facts and evidence, not emotion or prejudice."
A knock on the perceived rigidness of the Bush administration. Condoleezza Rice might argue this is her approach she takes -- she calls it "American realism" -- but no Democrat will concede that.
* "America cannot solve the most pressing problems on our own, and the world cannot solve them without America."
Seems pretty self-evident
* "I believe American leadership has been wanting, but is still wanted."
Again, the we-are-not-Bush theme.
* "We must use what has been called 'smart power,' the full range of tools at our disposal." "With 'smart power,' diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy."
One of HRC's favorite buzz phrases, but what does this really mean? "Dumb power" is bombs, I guess -- but isn't "smart power" just another word for diplomacy?
* "I don't get up every morning thinking only about the threats and dangers we face. With every challenge comes an opportunity to find promise and possibility in the face of adversity and complexity."
This is a good and important section. It begins to separate the Obama diplomacy from the "war on terror" and instead refocuses the diplomacy on maneuvering through the current thicket of conflict and crisis. And it suggests that no matter how grim things seem, smart diplomacy might actually make lemonade out of lemons.
* She will say it will be a top "priority" to seek full funding for the State Department and USAID. "We must not shortchange them, or ourselves, by denying them the resources they need."
The proof will be in the results. Every Secretary wants "full funding" for her department.
Posted at 4:29 PM ET on Jan 13, 2009
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