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Obama's Iraq Envoy Pick Wins Key Senate Vote

Christopher Hill

Christopher Hill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- President Barack Obama's pick to be U.S. ambassador to Iraq, veteran diplomat Chris Hill, moved closer to winning Senate confirmation after clearing a critical procedural hurdle.

Opponents charge Hill lacks Middle East experience and neglected human rights as the U.S. envoy to multilateral talks with North Korea over its nuclear program. But the Senate voted 73-17 to overcome their objections to debating Hill's nomination.

The final vote, on which Hill will need only a simple majority of the 100-seat Senate to be confirmed, is expected later this week.

However, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, who championed Republican opposition to Hill, said he wanted to have a "fulsome" debate first. Under Senate rules, Hill's opponents could insist on up to 30 hours of debate before the final vote.

An irate Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said it was a shame to delay any further getting Hill to Baghdad to manage the diplomatic side of Obama's planned drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Reid said Hill was urgently needed to get to Baghdad and "fill this gaping hole in our diplomatic lineup." Hill's predecessor in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, stepped down in February.

Brownback said Hill misled him during talks with Pyongyang over scrapping its nuclear program, by promising that he would involve a human rights envoy, then not following through. Hill "lied to me about it," Brownback charged.

Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, says the multilateral talks with North Korea never moved to the phase where he could involve the U.S. human rights envoy. A former ambassador to Poland, Macedonia, and South Korea, Hill has pledged to go to Baghdad within a day of his confirmation.