By DONNA CASSATA, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — Democratic Sen. John Kerry, on a smooth path to confirmation as secretary of state, is likely to face friendly questioning when he testifies before the committee that he's served on for 28 years and led for the past four.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman will sit at the witness table Thursday when he appears before the panel, a month after President Barack Obama said he wanted him to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Clinton is stepping down.

The five-term Massachusetts senator is widely expected to win overwhelming bipartisan support from his colleagues, and that notion was reinforced by the list of people who will introduce him: Clinton, Massachusetts freshman Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Republican Sen. John McCain.

McCain and Kerry are friends who have worked closely on national security issues. They're also decorated Vietnam War veterans and former presidential candidates who know the sharp sting of defeat.

At the conclusion of a Capitol Hill news conference Tuesday, McCain joked about Kerry's hearing and the tough tactics that won't be employed.

"We will look forward to interrogating him at his hearing – mercilessly," McCain said to laughter. "We will bring back, for the only time, waterboarding to get the truth."

The hearing is the first of three for Obama's national security nominees and the least controversial.

Former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, nominated for 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, the president'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 job of the nation's top diplomat would be the realization of a dream for Kerry, whom Obama passed over in 2008 when he chose Clinton. When Joe Biden became vice president, Kerry replaced the former Delaware senator as chairman of the committee. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the incoming chairman, will preside at Kerry's hearing.

Obama nominated Kerry after Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, removed her name from consideration following criticism from Republicans over her initial comments about the attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.

Kerry, 69, is the son of a diplomat and has served as Obama's unofficial envoy, using his skills of persuasion with leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Although a rough hearing is unlikely, Kerry will be pressed about the civil war in Syria and other hot spots, foreign aid and the Keystone XL oil pipeline, about which he'll have a major say.

More than half the Senate has urged quick approval of the pipeline, increasing the pressure on Obama to move forward on the project despite concerns from environmentalists.

"We urge you to choose jobs, economic development and American energy security," wrote 53 senators, who added that the pipeline "has gone through the most exhaustive environmental scrutiny of any pipeline" in U.S. history.

The $7 billion project would carry tar sands oil from Canada to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.

The Obama administration has twice thwarted the 1,700-mile pipeline, which Calgary-based TransCanada first proposed in late 2008. The State Department delayed the project in late 2011 after environmental groups and others raised concerns about a proposed route through environmentally sensitive land in Nebraska.

The State Department said this week it does not expect to complete a review of the project before the end of March. The State Department has jurisdiction over the pipeline because it crosses a U.S. border.

In the past, Kerry has played a major role on climate change legislation and has warned of the environmental dangers.

In advance of his hearing, Kerry said he plans to divest holdings in dozens of companies in his family's vast financial portfolio to avoid conflicts of interest if he is confirmed.

He notified the State Department earlier this month that within 90 days of his confirmation he would move to sell off holdings in three trusts benefiting him and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry. In the Jan. 8 letter to the department's Office of the Legal Adviser, Kerry said he would not take part in any decisions that could affect the companies he has holdings in until those investments are sold off.

Kerry is the wealthiest man in the Senate, worth more than $184 million, according to a 2011 Senate disclosure.

___

Associated Press writers Matthew Daly and Stephen Braun contributed to this report.

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