U.S. senator: 'Unlikely' Cuba ambassador will be approved this year

September 28, 2016 8:03 PM EDT

U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle stand with U.S. ambassador to Cuba, Jeffrey DeLaurentis (L), as they meet with embassy staff in a hotel in Havana March 20, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

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By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which oversees the confirmation of foreign service nominees, said on Wednesday it was "highly unlikely" that an ambassador to Cuba would be approved this year.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday nominated career diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis to be the first U.S. ambassador to Cuba in more than five decades.

"The committee was notified of the nomination yesterday but has not yet received the appropriate paperwork to begin its work," Republican Senator Bob Corker said in a statement emailed to Reuters. "However, it is highly unlikely that an ambassador to Cuba would be approved in the lame-duck."

The appointment of DeLaurentis, the top American official at the U.S. embassy in Havana, marked Obama’s latest move to go as far as he can in normalizing ties between the former Cold War foes before he leaves office in January.

But the nomination must be approved by the Republican-controlled Senate, which is seen as a long shot.

Corker's committee would have to hold a confirmation hearing for DeLaurentis and vote to approve his nomination before it would go to the full Senate, where it could be blocked by any senator.

Many lawmakers have warmly embraced Obama's moves toward more normal relations with Cuba, which became public in a shock announcement in December 2014. But several strongly oppose his efforts, arguing that Cuba must do far more to improve human rights before it can deal normally with the United States.

Cuban-American senators such as Republicans Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and Democrat Robert Menendez are particularly opposed to Obama's policy. Rubio and Menendez are both members of the foreign relations panel.

Congress' "lame-duck" session takes place in November and December, after the elections on Nov. 8 and before the new Congress comes to Washington in January.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Sandra Maler and Leslie Adler)

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