US President Barack Obama’s picks for ambassadors to Iraq and Afghanistan cleared an important hurdle on Tuesday when a key committee approved their nominations for full Senate consideration.
However, Obama’s nominee to be Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, sent a letter to senators saying that she had recently corrected three years of tax returns and paid more than US$7,000 in back taxes after finding “unintentional errors.”
While Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry seemed on course to breeze to easy confirmation as the top US envoy in Kabul, veteran diplomat and North Korea expert Christopher Hill could still face a fight to get to Baghdad.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave the green light to both nominations by voice vote with no lawmakers objecting — but Hill’s fiercest foes do not sit on the panel and could delay, though not block, a final vote.
Republican Senator Sam Brownback has accused Hill of ignoring North Korean human rights abuses, misleading lawmakers on the six-party denuclearization talks, and botching that diplomatic effort to end Pyongyang’s atomic ambitions.
The North Koreans “are now just as hostile and dangerous as ever,” he said on the Senate floor last week.
Brownback has been joined by other Republican senators, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, in his opposition to Hill. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could bring the nomination to a full Senate confirmation vote at any time and is expected to have little trouble harnessing the 60 votes needed to overcome any legislative delay tactics.
A Reid spokesman said it was “too early to tell” when a final vote would come and noted that it is unusual for the Senate to confirm a nominee on the same day that they cleared their relevant committee.
Democratic Senator John Kerry, the panel’s chairman, told his colleagues that there was “an urgency to getting these nominees out there” and praised Hill and Eikenberry’s “significant qualifications.”
“We are in, really, a crucial phase,” Hill told Kerry’s committee at a March 25 hearing. “I just don’t want to screw it up.”
Eikenberry would take up the task of managing Obama’s newly unveiled plan for turning around the situation in Afghanistan. He used his March 26 confirmation hearing before the Senate panel to offer a brief message to Afghanistan’s population — “Your success is our success” — and warn that winning the war requires neighbor Pakistan to crack down on extremists blamed for cross-border violence.
“We can succeed in Afghanistan, it’s true, but if we don’t address the problem, the linked problems in Pakistan, then we’ll have no lasting success,” Eikenberry said.
Meanwhile, Sebelius told senators that she had filed the amended returns as soon as the errors were discovered by an accountant she hired to scrub her taxes in preparation for her confirmation hearings.
She said the changes involved charitable contributions, the sale of a home and business expenses.
Sebelius and her husband, Gary, a federal judge in Kansas, paid a total of US$7,040 in back taxes and US$878 in interest to amend returns from 2005 to 2007.
Sebelius is scheduled to appear again today before the Senate.