By Lindsay Dunsmuir and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch on Thursday moved a step closer to being confirmed as the next U.S. attorney general when the U.S. Senate voted to limit debate on President Barack Obama's nominee after a delay of more than five months.
By a vote of 66-34, the Senate took the procedural step of heading off any senator's new delaying tactics, thus setting up a final vote later in the day.
That final vote is expected to be much closer, however, as many Republicans are lined up in opposition to Lynch as a way of protesting her support for Obama's November executive order lifting the threat of deportation against 4.7 million undocumented immigrants.
Democrats have blasted Republicans for the long delay in bringing Lynch to a vote. She has had to wait longer for confirmation than the last seven attorneys general combined.
If confirmed as expected, Lynch would be the first black woman to become the top U.S. law enforcement official.
Lynch, a fellow Harvard Law School graduate of Obama's, was nominated to replace Eric Holder. He was expected to step aside early next week so Lynch can take over as head of the U.S. Justice Department.
Despite the delay, Lynch was widely seen as less controversial than Holder, who often clashed with Republicans. She has said she aims to smooth relations with Congress.
As attorney general, her earliest tests would likely include handling civil rights cases stemming from deadly altercations between police and unarmed black men in several U.S. cities. The Justice Department has said it will look into bringing civil rights charges over the death of a Baltimore man who died after sustaining a spinal cord injury while in police custody.
Lynch would also inherit major financial cases involving allegations that some of the world's largest banks manipulated the currency markets and the Libor benchmark interest rate.
Her nomination was backed by the Senate's Judiciary Committee by a vote of 12-8 on Feb. 26. But her confirmation has languished over an impasse in the Republican-led Senate on an unrelated bill meant to protect human trafficking victims.
Democrats had balked at an anti-abortion provision included in that bill, but that dispute was settled on Tuesday and the bill was approved on Wednesday.
An accomplished career prosecutor, Lynch has twice served as U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, New York, most recently since 2010. Her office there handled more terrorism prosecutions than most other offices in the United States. For two years, she also has led a committee that advised the attorney general on policy.
At a Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 28, Lynch said that her top priorities would include fighting terrorist threats and cyber crime, and improving relations between law enforcement and minority communities.
(Reporting by Lindsay Dunsmuir, Julia Edwards and Richard Cowan; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and James Dalgleish)