WASHINGTON – Presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz is blocking a vote in the U.S. Senate to confirm the Norwegian and Swedish ambassador nominations.
The move by the Texas Republican has angered some members of Minnesota’s sizable Scandinavian communities, as Norway has been without an ambassador for more than 800 days and Sweden tops 400 days without a U.S. representative.
Staffers from Cruz’s office didn’t say anything negative about the people appointed by President Obama to the posts, including Norway ambassador nominee Sam Heins from Minnesota. Cruz has continued to block the nominees as he has worked to build support for another initiative that is putting him at odds with the White House.
Cruz, who is critical of the Chinese government, has lobbied his Senate colleagues to rename a street in Washington, D.C., after a polarizing Chinese dissident — an idea that has been thwarted by fears of crippling diplomatic efforts between the two countries.
“Senator Cruz remains engaged in good-faith discussions with his colleagues regarding the holds he announced because of his serious concerns about the Obama administration’s foreign policy,” said Cruz spokesman Phil Novack.
The White House renewed its calls for a swift vote on the ambassador nominees.
“The president has nominated two unquestionably qualified individuals to be the U.S. ambassadors to Sweden and Norway,” said White House press secretary Eric Schultz. “We urge the Senate to act.”
Minnesotans closely watching the issue are angered by the delay, saying it is souring relations with two staunch U.S. allies.
“There’s a crisis in a relationship between our two countries,” said Bruce Karstadt, president and CEO of the Minneapolis-based American Swedish Institute. “I don’t really quite understand that any statement is being made other than we’re ignoring you.”
Cruz’s office says he remains in negotiations about lifting the procedural blocks on the nominations, citing a July 2015 letter to the Obama administration outlining concerns about the Iran nuclear deal as one of the reasons he is objecting to political appointments.
Since that letter, though, two political appointments — state appointees to Barbados and the U.N. Economic Council — have passed the Senate without Cruz’s hold.
Temporary holds are relatively common and are also used by Democrats to protest administration policy. Earlier this week, for example, Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Markey placed a hold on Obama’s nominee to head the Food and Drug Administration unless the administration agrees to reform its process for approving painkiller medications.
Cruz’s protests delaying votes on the Scandinavian ambassador nominations irks Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who points out that Minnesota is home to the second-largest number of Norwegians in the world, outside of Norway. The two nominees passed through the GOP-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee, so Klobuchar wants a vote on the Senate floor even if Cruz votes against them.
Klobuchar points out the business relationships between the countries and that Norway and Sweden have shouldered much of the burden of the European refugee crisis in recent years. “It’s no way to treat your friends,” she said. “The point is all these other European nations have ambassadors. Why would you put a hold on two of our best allies from having ambassadors?”
Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken said he also would increase pressure for a vote. “We need to move on ambassador openings for both Norway — where there’s a highly qualified Minnesota nominee who has yet to be confirmed — and Sweden,” Franken said. “I’m going to continue pressing to get these positions filled.”
Norway and Sweden are two of the largest investors in the U.S. economy. Norway is invested in more than 2,100 American companies, which amounts to about $175 billion. It also has about $94 billion in U.S. bonds and $5 billion worth of U.S. real estate. Meanwhile, the U.S. exports $9 billion in goods and services to Sweden, a country that supports about 330,000 American jobs annually, embassy officials said.
Leif Trana, a minister counselor at the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, pointed out that his country just committed to 52 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin — all of them made at a Lockheed plant in Cruz’s home state of Texas.
“Norwegians have long had a great affinity for the United States,” Trana said. “After the E.U., this is our place where most Norwegians both travel to [and] study.”
The Norwegian post has been a beleaguered one for years.
President Obama first nominated businessman George Tsunis, a New York contributor who had raised more than $1 million in campaign cash for him. Tsunis quickly proved unqualified for the job. During an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tsunis referred to Norway’s prime minister as “president” and could not identify potential U.S. trade opportunities with Norway. One member of the Norwegian parliament was so offended by Tsunis that he demanded an apology from Obama.
Minnesota’s delegation, led by the Democrats, urged Obama to withdraw the nomination. He did, and in May 2015 he nominated Heins, a Minnesota lawyer and human rights advocate. Heins, too, was a major contributor and bundler for the president’s election campaigns.
For the Sweden post, Obama nominated Azita Raji, an Iranian-born former Wall Street executive. Her nomination has been mostly uncontroversial and passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last summer.
Jon Pederson, board chairman of the Minneapolis-based Norway House, said it’s shameful to play politics with the ambassador posts.
“This position is important,” Pederson said. “Left unfilled like this is a slap in the face to Norway.”