As Senior Senator, Kerry Finds New Rhythm

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Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry presides over the committee i

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry presides over a committee hearing last month. . Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry presides over the committee

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry presides over a committee hearing last month. .

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry has been a senator for nearly a quarter-century. For much of that time, he labored in the shadow of the Bay State's senior senator, the late Ted Kennedy. Then, after voters rejected Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, he seemed to keep an even lower profile.

Lately, though, Kerry has emerged as a leading voice on some of the nation's most pressing issues.

As the new senior senator from Massachusetts, Kerry is everywhere: chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, leading voice on Afghanistan, leader of a bipartisan group of senators crafting an alternative climate change bill — the one that Kerry says can pass.

He's also on the Finance Committee, which put together the leading health care bill.

"I like what I'm doing; I'm very engaged," Kerry says as he sits by the fireplace in his Senate office. Gone is his defensive and bombastic armor. Instead, he wears the confidence of a senator in full. "I'm feeling a terrific freedom in just sort of doing what I believe is important," Kerry says.

Maximizing His Time

What's important to Kerry is health care, and he has been prodding the Finance Committee to move legislation. "We're going to pass health care," Kerry says. "We are going to get this done. I've been confident of that all along. I'm confident of it now."

He's also weighing in on the war in Afghanistan before the Council on Foreign Relations. "We now have to choose a smart way forward, so that no one is ever compelled to ask whether we've made a mistake in staying," Kerry says.

Kerry also announced a bipartisan initiative to come up with a filibuster-proof bill on climate change. "We are going to reach out to colleagues to create the framework that we believe can get those 60 votes," Kerry says.

It all seems a long way from that day in July 2004 when Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran, addressed the Democratic National Convention in Boston: "I'm John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty!"

That duty would end bitterly for Kerry — with Bush's re-election.

Kerry's Senate colleague Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, notes that it took some time for him to come back from such a big loss.

"I think he made a decision that he was going to maximize his time in the Senate. Because there is no question that he's much more active, much more present, much more deliberative, much more participatory than he ever has been," Feinstein says.

'A Different Place'

For his part, Kerry insists on playing down his new prominence.

"I'm not doing very much different from what I've done in many years here," he says. "I'm just in a different place. Maybe because I ran for president and didn't make it, it's more noticeable now or something. But I don't stop, and I haven't analyzed that."

Kerry's fallen star started rising again when he became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. That happened after President Obama chose Joe Biden, the previous chairman, as his running mate. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, who is the panel's top Republican, says it was a turning point for Kerry.

"John Kerry has always had enormous leadership possibilities, but they've been limited by the fact that he did not have a chairmanship," Lugar says.

Kerry, 65, goes a long way back with the Foreign Relations Committee. He appeared before the panel nearly four decades ago after his service in Vietnam, dressed in fatigues, bitterly denouncing a war he said had been fought for nothing:

"Because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?" he asked the committee during his 1971 appearance. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. i

Kerry and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) earlier this month at a news conference to discuss climate change legislation they co-authored. Harry Hamburg/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Harry Hamburg/AP
Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

Kerry and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) earlier this month at a news conference to discuss climate change legislation they co-authored.

Harry Hamburg/AP

For Kerry, the war in Afghanistan has not been a mistake. He is even prepared to support a request for what he calls "some additional troops" from Obama.

"You know, there's no small irony in my being chairman of the committee in front of which I made that statement years ago, and having some responsibility for what these policies are," Kerry says.

Senior Senator

Kerry is also no longer overshadowed by Ted Kennedy, whose death in August left Kerry with a new title: senior senator from Massachusetts.

"When Sen. Kennedy passed away, I think everybody in the delegation, because we all talked about it, knew that we all have to step up, and, they're impossible shoes to fill, but nevertheless, we've got to walk in the footsteps, so to speak," Kerry says.

And just as Kennedy once turned to pragmatic deal-making in the Senate after losing a bid for the White House, so has Kerry. Kerry has teamed up with Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham to craft a business-friendly climate change bill that could attract GOP support. Graham says working with him has been a revelation.

"The one thing that I didn't realize about Sen. Kerry: He's a big Pink Panther fan and so am I, and so is his wife," Graham says. "So you never know about people until you sit down and talk with them. We tell a lot of Inspector Clouseau jokes."

Sometimes that's what it takes for things to happen in the Senate. And Kerry is now well-positioned to try to make them happen.

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