January 15, 2009 / 3:01 PM / 10 years ago

Senate panel approves Clinton as top U.S. diplomat

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sen. Hillary Clinton was approved by a Senate panel on Thursday to become the next U.S. secretary of state, despite misgivings about the charitable fundraising of her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

Senator Hillary Clinton smiles as she testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during her confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington to become the next U.S. Secretary of State January 13, 2009. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 16-1 in favor of the appointment, clearing a key hurdle to her appointment as the top U.S. diplomat.

Clinton still must be officially nominated and then confirmed by the full Senate but this is expected to be a formality, which congressional staff said will take place soon after Barack Obama’s inauguration as president on Tuesday.

Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican who this week questioned Clinton about her husband’s raising of foreign funds for his charitable foundation, was the sole negative vote.

Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry said Clinton did an “outstanding job” in her testimony before the committee this week but noted some senators had expressed concerns about her husband’s charitable foundation and the adequacy of an agreement devised to avoid conflicts of interest.

“I am confident Sen. Clinton will give those her full consideration,” said Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who had hoped to be selected as secretary of state and, like Clinton, made an unsuccessful run for U.S. president.

Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, also raised the foreign fundraising issue at Thursday’s hearing, although he said he would vote for Clinton’s nomination.

“I continue to have the concerns that you (Kerry) expressed that this be dealt with in a way that goes further than it has at this point,” said DeMint.

“Nothing could be worse than to take a wonderful talent like Sen. Clinton and have a perception of a conflict of interest that doesn’t exist.”

PRAGMATIC DIPLOMACY

Clinton, testifying to the committee on Tuesday, resisted Republican calls to amend a pact between her husband’s foundation and the Obama transition signed on December 12.

Under that agreement, the Clinton foundation made public a list of its past donors, promised to annually publish the names of its current donors and agreed to submit future foreign donations to a State Department ethics review.

Clinton has promised a more muscular and “pragmatic” approach to U.S. diplomacy, drawing an implicit contrast to what Democrats believe was the more ideological approach of outgoing Republican President George W. Bush.

She faces a barrage of challenges from tackling the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea to quelling the violence in the Gaza Strip following Israel’s invasion last month.

Speaking later, Clinton was by turns wistful about her time in Congress, where she took up a seat in 2001 as her husband left the White House, and upbeat about the future, saying this could be “one of the golden eras of the Senate.”

“This could be a time when people will look back and say, you know, you never can count America out. Whenever the chips are down we always rise to the occasion,” she said in a farewell speech on the Senate floor.

Kerry said it was very important to have a national security team in place as soon as possible and predicted Clinton would be at her State Department desk very soon.

“We want to be able to proceed immediately” with the full Senate vote after the inauguration, he said.

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Susan Cornwell, editing by Jackie Frank and Cynthia Osterman

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