Senate passes 'provocative' China bill, Cruz lifts nominee holds

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Friday backed a plan to name a plaza in front of the Chinese embassy for a pro-democracy dissident after what congressional sources called a tit-for-tat deal that led Senator Ted Cruz to stop blocking President Barack Obama’s diplomatic nominations.

A pro-democracy protester holds a portrait of Liu Xia, the wife of jailed Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, during a protest to call for the freeing of Chinese dissidents outside the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong December 5, 2013. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By unanimous voice vote, the Senate approved a bill introduced by Cruz, a leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, to name the plaza in Washington after Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel peace prize winner.

“It’s provocative and counterproductive. We strongly urge the U.S. side to stop such actions,” Chinese embassy spokesman Zhu Haiquan said in an emailed statement.

Cruz spokesman Phil Novack said the senator had ended his holds on nominees including Obama’s new ambassadors to Norway and Sweden and two top State Department officials.

The Senate also confirmed those nominations on Friday.

Senate rules allow any member to block a nomination by a procedure known as a “hold.” Cruz had imposed the holds last year after Washington and other world powers reached a deal with Iran in which it agreed to curb its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Novack said Cruz lifted his holds because he had successfully drawn attention to what he considers deep problems with the nuclear pact.

He declined comment on whether there was an agreement over the plaza bill. “I am not going to comment or say anything about process,” Novack said.

Several Senate sources, including high-level Republicans and Democrats knowledgeable about the process, said Cruz had dropped the holds after Obama’s fellow Democrats said they would not oppose the plaza-naming measure.

Novack said the issues “go hand in hand” in that China and Iran are both criticized for rights violations.

A White House spokesman said Obama’s senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill, adding: “While we continue to impress upon China the imperative of respecting human rights and releasing Liu Xiaobo, as well as other political prisoners, we do not believe Senator Cruz’s ploy to rename a street in Washington, DC is an effective way to achieve either goal.”

The nominees held by Cruz and confirmed Friday included Brian Egan to be State’s Legal Advisor, Thomas Shannon as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Azita Raji to be Ambassador to Sweden, Samuel Heins to be Ambassador to Norway, John Estrada to be Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago and David McKean as Ambassador to Luxembourg.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, Jonathan Landay and Jeff Mason; Editing by Bernard Orr and Alistair Bell