Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton smoothly took on policy questions, from the acute to the arcane, in a gentle job interview to be the nation’s top diplomat, but could not dispel tougher questions about whether her husband’s charity work poses an ethical conflict.
Her confirmation as secretary of state is not in doubt, and she could be on the job as soon as President-elect Barack Obama’s first full day in office. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee planned to vote on the selection Thursday.
Clinton gave a polished performance Tuesday, offering well-prepared answers to questions on crises and trouble spots including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, Cuba and Afghanistan. She offered few details about how she and Obama would handle those problems, except to say that in many cases they would offer a fresh approach after eight years of President George W. Bush.
But she also displayed the brisk, lawyerly persona she often uses to deflect controversy as she dealt with uncomfortable questions about the international fundraising of her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Several Republican senators questioned the scope of an agreement between Bill Clinton’s lawyer and Obama transition officials to deal with questions of possible ethics conflicts, and the current New York senator was quick to dismiss them.
"I am very proud to be the president-elect’s nominee for secretary of state, and I am very proud of what my husband and the Clinton Foundation and the associated efforts he’s undertaken have accomplished, as well," Clinton said.
Citing policy themes familiar from Obama’s presidential campaign — and in many cases her own — Clinton said the incoming Democratic administration wants to elevate the role of diplomacy.
"The president-elect and I believe that foreign policy must be based on a marriage of principles and pragmatism, not rigid ideology, on facts and evidence, not emotion or prejudice," Clinton said.
That was fine by everyone on the committee, apparently, as was nearly everything else Clinton said about subjects as complex as counterinsurgency strategy in Pakistan and as arcane as the international Law of the Sea.
Clinton’s cool demeanor held as she told Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., that her husband’s globe-trotting charity work would not pose even an appearance of conflict with her own world travels as Obama’s chief diplomat. But her answers took on a prickly tone as Sen. David Vitter, R-La., bored in with more reservations.
Despite efforts by Lugar to win more concessions from Bill Clinton on guarding against ethics conflicts, his wife insisted disclosure rules already in place were carefully crafted and adequate to avoid any conflict.
"It is not unique, however, for spouses of government officials to work, and there are very well established rules for what is expected when that occurs," she said.
Lugar was not convinced, though he assured Clinton of his vote.
"I plead for you, really, to give even more consideration," Lugar gingerly suggested.
Lugar said he worries that foreign governments or others might try to curry favor with the secretary of state by donating money to the good works group run by her husband. Lugar said the possibility for apparent conflicts of interest is obvious, even if both Clintons have only the best of intentions.
Before the hearing, Lugar made four suggestions to Clinton’s staff on how to improve transparency in her husband’s charitable fundraising, said the senator’s spokesman, Andy Fisher.
The Obama administration would accept only one of the proposals — that the foundation provide a clear picture of its annual donations, Fisher said.
Lugar also wanted the foundation to immediately disclose donations of $50,000 or more, alert ethics officials when such sizable donations are pledged and apply the same stringent requirements to foreign businesses. The current plan only subjects foreign governments to scrutiny by State Department ethics officials and would not require a review of contributions by foreign businesses — a loophole that could easily be exploited, Lugar warned.
Vitter followed up, insisting that Bill Clinton’s charity fundraising posed "real and perceived conflict issues."
After a long Clinton answer, Vitter interrupted to complain that she was eating up the time allotted for his questions. But for the most part, Vitter’s Republican counterparts did not press the attack. It was Clinton’s day.
She sat alone at a small, black-draped desk, with a retinue of advisers behind her, her husband conspicuously absent. Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said the former president was watching the hearing elsewhere with his wife’s mother. Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, sat behind her in the audience.
"President Clinton wanted to make sure the attention was focused on Sen. Clinton," Vietor said.
The questions began with Iran, a subject on which Clinton once suggested Obama was naive.
"We are not taking any option off the table at all, but we will pursue a new, perhaps different approach that will become a cornerstone of what the Obama administration believes is an attitude toward engagement that might bear fruit," Clinton said.
She added that the new team has no illusions and strongly suggested that Iran may spurn new efforts to talk it out of a suspect nuclear program.
"But the president-elect is committed to that course, and we will pursue it."