WASHINGTON (CNN) - Sen. John McCain will meet early next week with Chris Hill, President Barack Obama's nominee for ambassador to Iraq who McCain has questioned because he has no prior experience in the country, a spokeswoman told CNN.
McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan told CNN that McCain, an Arizona Republican and 2008 presidential nominee, plans to use the meeting to assess whether he thinks Hill can do the job. Buchanan said Hill requested the meeting.
McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, released a statement Thursday night saying "the next ambassador should have experience in the Middle East and in working closely with the U.S. military in counterinsurgency or counterterrorism operations. Mr. Hill has neither."
Hill has had a long career in the foreign service. He most recently served as U.S. ambassador to South Korea, leading the U.S. delegation to the so-called six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program.
He also has served as ambassador to Poland and special envoy to Kosovo among other posts in Europe.
"I have every confidence that Ambassador Hill is the right person to represent the United States in Baghdad," said Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, which will consider Hill's nomination. "By nominating Ambassador Hill to serve in Baghdad, President Obama has chosen one of our very best to help bring lasting peace to Iraq.
"I look forward to his confirmation hearings, and am confident that those of my colleagues who may not yet be familiar with his service to the nation will be as impressed by his skill and dedication as I have been."
State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said Friday the administration stands behind Hill.
"I know that Ambassador Hill looks forward to confirmation hearings in which he can address the senators' concerns and go into more detail about his record," Duguid said. "He is ready for those hearings."
But in a telephone conversation with CNN, Graham said Hill "has no experience in the theater of operations in an area where experience matters."
"No matter how talented he may be, he is coming into a position where he has no background," said Graham.
Neither Graham nor McCain has announced plans to put a hold on Hill's nomination, a move that is allowed under Senate rules and could effectively block him from getting the post.
At the White House, President Obama's spokesman staunchly defended Hill's experience and ability to do the job in Iraq.
"The president believes quite strongly that the political disputes that stand in the way of continued progress in Iraq - many that have been outlined for years - call for somebody who has the unique ability to both understand and solve those challenges, and that we believe that Chris Hill possess the skills to do exactly that," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
Both McCain and Graham, along with Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, also say they do not think Hill performed well as chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea.
"He's a figure from the past that got mixed reviews on North Korea," said Graham.
Kerry responded that "there are limits to what any one person can do" in situations like relations with North Korea and specifically responded to suggestions he failed to keep North Korea from testing a nuclear bomb.
"The responsibility for that lies first and foremost with North Korea and second with President Bush and his senior advisers, who did not empower Ambassador Hill to engage in direct talks with Pyongyang until after the North had withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, exported nuclear technology to Syria, and tested a nuclear bomb," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, released a statement enthusiastically backing Hill.
"Hill is precisely the kind of diplomat America needs in the Middle East and Iraq, where a long-term resolution must be achieved politically and diplomatically, not militarily. I look forward to confirming him as quickly as possible," said Reid.
Updated: 8:09 p.m.
- CNN's Charley Keyes contributed to this report.