By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - John Kerry's nomination as President Barack Obama's new secretary of state sailed through the Senate on Tuesday, as his fellow senators voted overwhelmingly to confirm him to replace Hillary Clinton as the country's top diplomat.
The vote was 94-3 in favor. The two senators from Texas, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, and Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, all Republicans, were the only no votes. Kerry, the senior Democratic senator from Massachusetts, voted "present."
Kerry's confirmation as the first new member of Obama's second-term national security team had been expected.
The Senate agreed to vote five days after his hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That panel, which he has chaired for the past four years, voted unanimously by voice vote earlier on Tuesday to back his nomination.
The confirmation sets in motion what is expected to be a closely contested special election for Kerry's Senate seat. The Boston Globe reported on Monday that Massachusetts' Democratic governor, Deval Patrick, would announce an interim senator on Wednesday and had set a special election for June 25, after a primary on April 30.
Kerry, 69, a five-term senator and losing presidential candidate in 2004, is expected to be sworn in as secretary of state this week. Clinton's last day at the State Department is Friday.
Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey said before the roll call that a heavy vote for Kerry would send a "strong message" to the rest of the world that he had the firm backing of the entire United States.
Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the top Republican on the committee, praised Kerry's testimony. "I thought that Senator Kerry acquitted himself exceptionally well in the hearings that we had last week," he said on the Senate floor.
Obama has named two other nominees for his second-term national security team: former Senator Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense and John Brennan, his counterterrorism adviser, as CIA director. But both are expected to face much tougher questioning than Kerry.
Hagel's confirmation hearing is Thursday, and Brennan's is set for February 7.
Kerry, beaming, was warmly congratulated by his fellow senators after the vote. As the son of a diplomat and decorated Vietnam War veteran, they said, he has been preparing to be secretary of state all of his life.
At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Kerry was visibly moved by applause and praise from his fellow senators.
"I'm honored beyond words," he said, before making brief remarks about the importance of the committee moving forward on issues like Middle East peace.
Kerry, who has been in the Senate since 1985, said he will make a final speech in the chamber on Wednesday.
"What a privilege to work with you and now to work with you in a different way. I thank you very, very much," Kerry said.
(Editing by Stacey Joyce)