By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Friday will nominate U.S. Senator John Kerry to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, marking his first major step in the overhaul of his national security team on the cusp of his second term.
Obama settled on Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, after U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice withdrew from consideration last week. The Massachusetts Democrat is expected to win easy confirmation from his Senate colleagues.
Obama will announce Kerry's nomination at 1:30 p.m. EST but will withhold any decision on a new defense secretary, administration officials said. The president has held off in the face of a growing backlash from critics of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, considered a leading candidate to replace Leon Panetta at the Pentagon.
Kerry, 69, a stalwart Obama supporter known to have long coveted the job of America's top diplomat, will take over from Clinton, who has been consistently rated as the most popular member of the president's cabinet.
But he will also have to pick up the pieces after a scathing official inquiry found serious security lapses by the State Department in the deadly September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya - a report that has tarnished the final days of Clinton's tenure.
Kerry's nomination follows a political firestorm that engulfed Rice, seen as the early favorite for the State job, spearheaded by Republicans fiercely critical of her role in the administration's early explanations for the Benghazi assault.
Rice, defended by Obama, said last Thursday she was withdrawing her name from consideration to avoid a potentially lengthy and disruptive confirmation process.
Kerry, known nationally through his presidential run and for his role as a Democratic power broker in the Senate, offers no such challenges.
The selection of Kerry sets a pragmatic tone as Obama begins reshaping his national security team, which will include a new CIA director.
Kerry will be the leading Cabinet member charged with tackling a range of thorny global challenges, including Middle East upheaval, Iran's nuclear standoff with the West and winding down the war in Afghanistan - all at a time of fiscal austerity at home.
CLOSE TIES TO OBAMA
Kerry has forged close ties with Obama, and gave him the keynote speech assignment at the 2004 Democratic convention that boosted him to the national stage and opened the way for his meteoric rise.
After losing narrowly to Republican George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election, Kerry forged a new identity as a congressional leader on foreign policy. He often served as a low-profile emissary and diplomatic troubleshooter for the Obama White House in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria.
But White House aides acknowledge that Kerry could be handicapped somewhat for lacking the close personal bond that Rice has with Obama.
On top of that, Kerry's departure from the Senate forces Democrats to defend his seat. Just-defeated but still-popular Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown, who took office in early 2010 after winning the last special election for a Massachusetts seat, is widely expected to run.
Obama had originally weighed rolling out his top national security appointments in a single package this week. But the controversy over Hagel apparently led the White House to take a more piecemeal approach.
The administration on Thursday joined allies rallying to support Hagel against an onslaught over his record on Israel and Iran led by some pro-Israel groups and neo-conservatives, but also including some former colleagues on Capitol Hill.
It was the second time since Obama's re-election last month that the White House has found itself forced to defend a Cabinet candidate who has yet to be nominated for anything, a source of frustration for the president's advisers
The drumbeat of criticism against Hagel could prompt Obama to reconsider whether it would be worth the likely Senate confirmation battle. But the White House has given no sign of dropping him the president's short list.
Further complicating decisions on the remaining appointments, Obama's attention has been dominated in recent by the "fiscal cliff" standoff and the fallout from last week's deadly shooting rampage at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
Also in the mix for the Pentagon job are Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, and Ashton Carter, the current deputy defense secretary.
The top candidates for CIA director, to replace David Petraeus who stepped down over an extramarital affair, are believed to be Michael Morell, currently acting CIA director, and John Brennan, a top counter-terrorism adviser to Obama and former CIA official.
(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Vicki Allen)
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