Senate panel approves Tsunis' Norway nomination, amid dissent

George James Tsunis of New York, during his George James Tsunis of New York, during his senate confirmation hearing to be the Ambassador to the Kingdom of Norway in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 16, 2014. Photo Credit: U.S. Senate

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WASHINGTON -- A Senate panel approved the nomination of Long Island businessman George Tsunis to be ambassador to Norway Tuesday, but only after Sen. John McCain complained he has become a "mockery" in Norway and might "embarrass the United States of America."

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee cleared Tsunis, 46, of Cold Spring Harbor, in a 12-6 recorded vote as it signed off on most other nominees by voice vote.

McCain (R-Ariz.), who demanded the recorded vote, said Tsunis' errors in talking about Norway in his hearing Jan. 16 have gone "viral" in that country and was the subject of a late-night comedy show skit here.

In the hearing, Tsunis "talks about the president of the country he is going to serve in and there is no president -- it's a constitutional monarchy -- and he talks about a faction within the government as condemned by the government," McCain said.

"The question is whether . . . [Tsunis] will embarrass the United States of America while serving as our representative," McCain said. Describing Norway as "a very important NATO partner," he said Tsunis "has become a mockery within the country" in which he would be posted.

Tsunis declined to comment.

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Democrats defended Tsunis. They joined with a handful of Republicans to send his nomination to the full Senate for a final vote, which is not yet scheduled.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-N.J.) said in a meeting before last month's hearing, Tsunis "displayed what I thought was a fairly impressive and wide-ranging knowledge" of Norway.

Murphy added Tsunis, director of Chartwell Hotels, had experience for the post as a member of Brookings Institution's Foreign Policy Leadership Committee and of Business Executives for National Security.

But Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said, "I've been a little disappointed about the number of ambassadorships that have been basically handed to -- let's talk about the gorilla in the room here -- people who have donated a lot of money to a particular administration."

Tsunis is a strong case in point, said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, which seeks to limit money in politics.

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Until 2009, Tsunis had been a lifelong Republican -- he gave McCain's presidential campaign $50,000 in 2008. But in 2009, Tsunis switched parties and in 2012 raised $988,550 for President Barack Obama.

Nominees should visit countries they'll serve, said Johnson, adding. "The problem is this is a rushed process. They are not being properly prepared."

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