Many of President Obama’s nominees have faced grillings on Capitol Hill. But Caroline Kennedy, Obama’s pick to be ambassador to Japan, was greeted Thursday with the chamber’s equivalent of a big, wet kiss.

Senators lavished praise on her during her nomination hearing before the Foreign Relations Committee. Not that ambassador hearings are typically testy affairs, but this one was particularly friendly.

First up was Sen. Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who beamed as he introduced Kennedy, his constituent. He was clearly in an effusive mood, first praising the panel’s leaders for “the great job you’ve done on this committee” before launching into his ode to Kennedy.

Having run through her accomplishments as a philanthropist, author and lawyer, as well as those of her storied political family, he lauded Kennedy’s most recent coup: successfully swimming three miles in the Hudson River for charity. “I’m not sure either of us could have accomplished this feat,” Schumer marveled to Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the committee’s chairman.

Schumer finished with a parting compliment: “Her passion to do right and do good burns so strongly within her. Thank you for the privilege. It’s truly a privilege.”


Next, New York’s other senator, fellow Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, took a turn at introducing the woman she called a “favorite daughter of New York,” noting that Kennedy would be the first woman to serve as ambassador to Japan.

“In her life, her work, her intelligence and her character, Ms. Kennedy will serve as a shining example” to young women in that country, she said.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) might be new to the chamber, but his homage to Kennedy fit right in. “You are the pluperfect embodiment of someone who has dedicated her life to helping others,” he informed her.

But it wasn’t just Kennedy’s status as political rock star that ensured the kid-glove treatment, suggested Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the committee’s top Republican.

He revealed one of the secrets of confirmation hearings: that nominees who bring their children to the proceedings typically avoid any rough treatment. Kennedy was accompanied by a family contingent that included two of her three children, as well as her aunt Vicky Kennedy, the widow of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.).

“I doubt you’ll get much of a hard time today for a variety of reasons,” Corker said. “But having your kids here ensures that.”

Kennedy returned the love. When Menendez asked a stock question about whether she would keep the Senate apprised of developments on bilateral talks between the United States and Japan, she displayed formidable diplomatic skills.

“If confirmed, I hope to spend even more time with all of you than I have already,” she said.

And later, a nod to her uncle — and to his former colleagues: “I grew up under the tutelage of a great senator, so I have the utmost respect for the position.”

Putin’s nyet gains

New Gallup polling shows that Americans are less enamored of Vladmir Putin than ever before.

To read the polling firm’s analysis, it seems that sentiment toward the Russian president is souring faster than a week-old stroganoff — it’s the first time that a majority of Americans, for the first time, view him unfavorably.

But for all of Putin’s unappealing slouching (oh, and that business about taking issue with America’s exceptionalism), a full 19 percent of Americans still hold a “favorable” view of the former KGBer. That’s nearly a fifth! Which is really not too shabby, all things considered.

In fact, it’s exactly the same percentage as Congress got the last time Gallup checked, which was only a few weeks ago.

And so even though Congress and Putin aren’t exactly seeing eye to eye these days (just ask Sen. John McCain, who penned an op-ed calling the Russian leader corrupt, among other insults), they’ve at least got something in common.

That’s one hurdle . . .

The Senate Judiciary Committee, on a party-line 10 to 8 vote Thursday, approved the nomination of Georgetown law professor and former Justice Department lawyer Nina Pillard to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Her chances of confirmation by the full Senate, however, may fall in the slim-to-none range. The vote overcame, for now, strong opposition from Republicans who said Pillard held “extreme” and “activist” views.

Pillard is the second of three Obama nominees approved by the committee for long-standing vacancies on the D.C. Circuit, often called the second most important court in the country.

Another nominee, Patricia Millett , also was a approved on a party-line 10 to 8 vote in committee, on Aug. 1, though Republicans didn’t criticize her qualifications, arguing that the court didn’t need any more judges. The third nominee, U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins, is expected to have a committee vote in the next few weeks.

It appears likely that Senate Republicans will move to block confirmation of all three nominees, preserving the existing 4 to 4 split between Republicans and Democrats on the appeals court.

In other committee news, Kristine Lucius, who has been with the committee for 11 years, has replaced Bruce Cohen, who had been the committee’s staff director since 1997.

Straight talk

And speaking of Putin, the Russian president/astute cultural commentator/legal analyst has a theory about how former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi could have avoided those pesky tax-fraud charges he was convicted of last year.

“Berlusconi is being tried for living with women,” Putin mused during an appearance at the Valdai Discussion Club in Moscow, the Russian news service Interfax reported Thursday. “If he were homosexual, no one would lay a finger on him.”

With Emily Heil

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