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Minnesotan confirmed as Norway ambassador, ending long saga

The U.S. ambassador’s chair in Oslo has sat vacant for 869 days.

WASHINGTON — An international embarrassment for the U.S. — and, more importantly, Minnesota — has finally come to an end: on Friday, the U.S. Senate confirmed Minneapolis attorney Sam Heins as the new American ambassador to the Kingdom of Norway.

Samuel Heins

Normally, this would not be such a big deal — diplomatic confirmations tend to be routine and don’t attract much fanfare. But the U.S. ambassador’s chair in Oslo has sat vacant for 869 days, thanks to a blunder from the White House and procedural maneuvers from Senate Republicans.

In 2014, President Barack Obama named New York businessman and lawyer George Tsunis as his nominee for U.S. ambassador, but he withdrew himself later that year after an embarrassing hearing. Obama then nominated Heins, an accomplished lawyer from Minneapolis who, like many ambassador candidates, has been a donor and supporter of the president.

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But Heins’ bid languished in the Senate all of last year, when several Senate Republicans placed holds on White House diplomatic appointments to protest the Iran nuclear deal and other foreign policy issues. Freshman Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton placed a hold on Heins’ confirmation but later removed it. A GOP presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, had been keeping the hold in place for months, along with another hold on the confirmation of Azita Raji, nominee for ambassador to Sweden.

In an interview with MinnPost, Sen. Amy Klobuchar explained her role in all this: namely, “being a pain.” Along with New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Klobuchar aimed to needle GOP leadership into finding a way to move ahead with the confirmations. In recent weeks, Shaheen and Klobuchar traded off going to the Senate floor each day to voice their displeasure with the Senate’s foot-dragging on diplomatic appointments.

Cruz, being the only real objector to the confirmations, had to find other senators willing to maintain his holds while he was out campaigning. That task often fell to Utah Sen. Mike Lee, one of the Texan’s few allies in the Senate, and someone who Klobuchar calls a friend.

Klobuchar acknowledged that presidential politics held the confirmation hostage, “but at the same time, I decided we’d use it to our advantage,” she said, and pushed Senate leaders to move ahead in Cruz’s absence.

Ultimately, with Cruz away in South Carolina on Friday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put the Norway and Sweden ambassadorship confirmations on the docket. Both went through the chamber unanimously — no objection from Lee.

Heins himself is not of Norwegian descent, but said in his confirmation hearing that Minnesotans are “honorary Norwegians.” Klobuchar said it is a “good day for Minnesota, and history has been righted — we finally have a Minnesotan back in the embassy in Norway.”

Klobuchar said she would celebrate with lutefisk, but she demurred when pressed on the question.