By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - At least one of President Barack Obama's national security picks is likely to win approval easily from the U.S. Senate: his nominee for Secretary of State, John Kerry, whose confirmation hearing will be conducted by a committee he has led for four years.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. EST on Thursday.
Obama nominated the Massachusetts senator to succeed Hillary Clinton as the country's top diplomat last month, after Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, withdrew from consideration amid scathing Republican criticism of her handling of a September attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
As the replacement for a potential nominee seen as controversial, the five-term U.S. senator and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee is expected to sail through the confirmation process. He could start his new job early next month.
While voicing deep concerns about Rice and Chuck Hagel and John Brennan, Obama's nominees to be Secretary of Defense and director of the Central Intelligence Agency, senators have expressed few worries about Kerry.
"He has this nomination in part because of his good relations with the Senate and the fact that he can sail through the Senate, that's why he is there rather than Susan Rice," said James Mann, author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.
Senate aides said this week they did not foresee last-minute obstacles to Kerry's confirmation.
The Massachusetts Democrat is likely to face questions about Benghazi at the hearing, a day after Clinton spent more than 5-1/2 hours testifying on Capitol Hill about the incident.
Clinton will introduce Kerry as his hearing begins.
Republican Senator John McCain, who was one of the loudest critics of Rice, joked about Kerry's hearing. He said this week the Foreign Relations Committee looked forward to "interrogating" Kerry.
"We will bring back, for the only time, waterboarding to get the truth out of him," McCain quipped to a news conference.
SYRIA, IRAN, ARMS CONTROL
But Kerry, who has been seen as a dutiful Obama supporter, can expect some pointed questions. He opposed the Iraq War and has served as a special emissary for Obama in delicate areas like Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he traveled in 2009 to help convince President Hamid Karzai to agree to a runoff election.
As a senator, Kerry visited Damascus repeatedly prior to the outbreak of Syria's devastating civil war and was a proponent of U.S. re-engagement with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Republicans are expected to grill Kerry about how Washington can deal with everything from a possible power vacuum to Assad's potential use of chemical weapons.
Republicans likely will quiz Kerry about his approach to Iran. Hardliners have criticized him for failing to seek tougher sanctions to discourage the Islamic Republic from pursuing its nuclear program.
Mann, the author of "The Obamians," a 2012 book on Obama's international policy, said Kerry may also be queried on arms control after helping pass the New START treaty during Obama's first term. Some Republicans were concerned that the nuclear arms control deal did not demand enough of Russia.
But none of that is not expected to derail his nomination.
The Yale-educated son of a foreign service officer, Kerry, 69, has been a specialist in foreign affairs for years. In the 1960s, he differed from most of his well-heeled peers by enlisting in the U.S. Navy and serving two tours of duty in the Vietnam War.
He broke from - and enraged - the military establishment by becoming a prominent anti-war demonstrator after returning home. Bitter personal attacks over that role helped cost him the presidency in 2004.
But such concerns now seem a relic of the distant past.
Several Senate Republicans suggested their longtime colleague Kerry as a more desirable alternative as they expressed doubts about Rice last year.
And Kerry, one of the richest members of the Senate thanks to his second wife's fortune, already cleared up one concern.
He and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, have agreed to divest nearly 100 separate investments in the United States and abroad if he becomes the country's top diplomat.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Cynthia Osterman)
(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2013. Check for restrictions at: http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp