Kerry tackles questions on Iran and Syria

President Barack Obama's nominee for secretary of state testified at his confirmation hearing that the United States must get its fiscal house in order to lead in the world while also discussing Iran, Syria and other issues.

Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat, also spoke out strongly Thursday for dealing with climate change, providing food and energy security and humanitarian assistance before members of the Foreign Relations Committee. The committee is expected to approve Kerry's nomination and a full Senate vote was expected Tuesday.

Kerry — son of a diplomat, a Navy officer in Vietnam, anti-war protester, five-term senator, unsuccessful presidential candidate and Obama's unofficial envoy — also spoke for robust foreign aid, but insisted that the country's economy is central to success abroad.

"More than ever, foreign policy is economic policy," said Kerry, who has been a member of the committee for 28 years and its chairman for the last four." That bipartisan congressional panel failed in 2011 in its mandate to come up with a deficit-cutting plan.

Sharp disagreements between Democrats and congressional Republicans over taxes and spending have threatened to set back America's struggling economy. The latest ongoing dispute over whether to raise the federal debt ceiling was settled temporarily after the Republican-led House of Representatives voted Wednesday to postpone any showdown on the borrowing limit for three months.

Thursday's hearing is the first of three for Obama's national security nominees, and the least controversial. The president's pick of Chuck Hagel to be the next defense secretary will face tough questions about his past statements on Israel, Iran, nuclear weapons and defense spending at his confirmation hearing next Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. John Brennan, Obama's choice for CIA director, will be quizzed about White House national security leaks and the use of unmanned drones at his hearing next month.

The current secretary, Hillary Rodham Clinton, introduced Kerry, calling him "the right choice." She is stepping down after four years.

Kerry said U.S. foreign policy should not be defined only by its military strength.

"American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone," Kerry said in outlining his views. "We cannot allow the extraordinary good we do to save and change lives to be eclipsed entirely by the role we have had to play since Sept. 11, a role that was thrust upon us."

Faced with Iran's nuclear program, Kerry said the United States will do what it must to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but he also signaled that diplomacy remains a viable option.

The senator said he was hopeful that the U.S. and other nations could make progress on the diplomatic front, but that Tehran needs to relent and agree to intrusive inspections.

"If their program is peaceful, they can prove it," he said.

In an unexpected exchange, Kerry found himself defending Obama's pick of Hagel — a Republican — to be the next defense secretary against Republican criticism.

Sen. Bob Corker, the senior Republican on the panel, expressed concerns about Hagel's support for an 80 percent reduction of U.S. nuclear weapons, a major issue for the Tennessee lawmaker and his home state. The Y-12 nuclear facility is located near Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and any cuts or delays in modernization to the nuclear arsenal would have an impact on local jobs.