WASHINGTON — For decades, Massachusetts has enjoyed significant seniority in the U.S. Senate — to say nothing of the money and attention from Washington attendant with such status.
President Barack Obama on Friday nominated Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, one of Washington’s most respected voices on foreign policy, as his next secretary of state, continuing the tradition of Massachusetts leaders being closely tied to the seat of power.
The late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was the Senate’s second-most senior member, and his office was legendary on Capitol Hill for a constituent service operation able to slice through red tape on behalf of local elected officials and rank-and-file citizens. Such was Mr. Kennedy’s seniority — he served in the Senate for 47 years before his death in 2009 — that his colleague and fellow Democrat, Mr. Kerry, spent nearly a quarter century as the Bay State’s “junior” senator.
Now, with Mr. Kerry nominated to become the next secretary of state, Massachusetts finds itself on the other end of the Senate seniority spectrum. Sen.-elect Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, is poised to become the state’s senior senator after just weeks in office.
As the nation’s top diplomat, Mr. Kerry will not only be tasked with executing the president’s foreign policy objectives, but will also have a hand in shaping them. The longtime lawmaker has been in lockstep with Obama on issues like nuclear non-proliferation, but ahead of the White House in advocating aggressive policies in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere that the president later embraced.
While not minimizing the impact of losing Mr. Kerry, leaders in the public and private sectors nonetheless appear confident that the seniority of the state’s all-Democratic U.S. House delegation will be able to compensate in looking out for the Bay State’s interests.
A cautionary note was voiced by David Hopkins, a Boston College political science professor who suggested that the all-Democratic House contingent could be at a disadvantage because of that chamber’s Republican majority.
At the same time, the Massachusetts delegation will have the benefit of a Democratic White House in commanding the attention of federal departments and agencies over the next four years.
Worcester City Councilor William J. Eddy, who worked on Mr. Kerry’s 1982 campaign for lieutenant governor and was selected as an elector for his 2004 presidential campaign, stressed that his departure could be a factor when competing for federal grants.
“It would be a tremendous gain for the president and our foreign policy, but clearly it will be a loss for Massachusetts,” he added.
After the combined seniority of Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Kerry, Mr. Eddy said, the inexperience of the incoming senators could affect funds for Worcester in regard to Union Station and public safety.
He also noted the retirement of U.S. Rep. John W. Olver, D-Amherst, who has been a key leader in the House Appropriations Committee and someone who has designated funds to the state especially through his role on the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Subcommittee.
“You’re looking at replacing 70 years in the Senate, and we’re clearly going to have to work harder down there to make up for it,” Mr. Eddy said.
A member of the House delegation, U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Worcester, likened Mr. Kerry’s shift to a Cabinet position to the impact of losing Mr. Kennedy, a legislator with “a great deal of seniority and a leader on many of the issues.”
Said Mr. McGovern of Mr. Kerry’s departure: “I’m of mixed feelings. On one hand I think he’ll be an extraordinary secretary of state. But we have him now as our senator, and he is someone who delivers and who has been a leader on issues important to Massachusetts.”
However, Mr. McGovern said, he is confident that the freshman senators — Ms. Warren and Mr. Kerry’s successor — along with the “accumulated seniority” of his Massachusetts House colleagues can fill the vacuum created by the departure of Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Kerry from Capitol Hill.
Mr. McGovern said that the rest of the delegation “will just need to work harder” to ensure that that federal funds keep flowing to boost the state’s infrastructure and transportation systems. Perhaps most critical, he said, is the medical research funding from the federal government, which could be threatened when Congress balances the budget.
Mr. McGovern’s remarks were echoed by Jim Brett, president and chief executive officer of the New England Council, an alliance of businesses and health and academic institutions that seeks to promote economic growth.
Mr. Brett cited Mr. Kerry’s work to ensure funding from the National Institutes of Health, which he said “not only provides just jobs, but also in finding cures for so many of our diseases.” University of Massachusetts Medical School’s research heavily depends on NIH funding.
“He’s been a champion on NIH to make sure we get our fair share — and quite frankly, we get more than our fair share in this region,” Mr. Brett said. “We get more than any other region per capita in the nation, and that’s not by accident.”
But although Mr. Brett praised Mr. Kerry for being an “enormously significant player” in the Senate, he contended that Mr. Kerry’s departure would only have a short-term impact. He believes that Ms. Warren and the House members will “be as aggressive as him.”
Mr. Brett singled out Mr. McGovern along with Reps. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield and Edward J. Markey, D-Malden, as “three players who will step up to the plate and be even more vigilant to protect the interests” of the state.
Mr. Hopkins agreed that the Mr. Kerry’s departure would only have a “minor impact” on Massachusetts’ funding. Part of it, he said, is the changed nature of the Senate since the days when Mr. Kennedy was at the height of his powers.
“The seniority in the Senate is not exactly what it used to be in terms of being able to direct money to the home state,” Mr. Hopkins said. He cited recent budgetary pressures against “earmarks,” which are funds directed to special projects in a legislator’s state or district.
He also noted “the fact that Sen. Kerry is not on the Appropriations Committee.” The members of that powerful panel have had a traditional advantage in funneling money to their home constituencies.
In nominating Mr. Kerry, the president said, “He is not going to need a lot of on-the-job training. Few individuals know as many presidents and prime ministers or grasp our foreign policies as firmly as John Kerry.”
He is expected to win confirmation easily in the Senate, where he has served since 1985, the last six years as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Mr. Kerry would take the helm at the State Department from Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has long planned to leave the administration early next year. Mrs. Clinton is recovering from a concussion sustained in a fall and did not attend the White House event.
In a statement, Mrs. Clinton said, “John Kerry has been tested — in war, in government, and in diplomacy. Time and again, he has proven his mettle.”
— Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.
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