Senate to vote on two controversial Obama ‘ambassadonors’ Dec. 1

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent

The debate in Washington shifts from undocumented immigrants to questionably credentialed emigrants Dec. 1 as the Senate votes on two of President Barack Obama’s most controversial ambassador nominees — big-time donors seemingly picked only to reward them for scooping up campaign cash.

Noah Bryson Mamet and Colleen Bell each raised at least $500,000 for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. The president then nominated Mamet to be ambassador to Argentina and Bell to be ambassador to Hungary.

But each of them ran into trouble early in the Senate confirmation process. Mamet admitted that he had never been to Argentina, while Bell stumbled and stammered her way through answering the question, “What are our strategic interests in Hungary?”

Their nominations stalled. The Senate went on to confirm other ambassadors, including some big-time Obama donors, nominated after they were.

But with Republicans due to take over the Senate in January, the “lame-duck” session is likely Mamet's and Bell’s last real chance to be confirmed. So Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid is bringing their nominations to a vote after the Thanksgiving recess.

By bipartisan agreement, the Senate has steadily been confirming career diplomats by voice vote — a speedy process that virtually guarantees confirmation and does not record how any individual senator voted. But Republicans have refused to green-light voice votes for Obama campaign donors.

Producer Colleen Bell attends the fifth annual PSLA Autumn Party benefiting Children's Institute, Inc., sponsored by Saks Fifth Avenue, with fashion partner Donna Karan at 3Labs on October 8, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage via Getty Images)

The result is that Democratic senators, including those beaten earlier this month by Republicans who capitalized on Obama’s unpopularity, will now likely face two roll call votes in 10 days on whether to confirm Mamet and Bell.

First, the Senate will take up a motion to end debate on the nominations. That will happen at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 1 and requires a simple majority. If the vote is successful, senators will have to vote at 10:30 a.m. the next day on actual confirmation, which also requires a simple majority.

Political appointees can make sterling diplomats. By all accounts, Caroline Kennedy has been doing a good job as ambassador to Japan. Charles Rivkin went from being executive producer of “Yo Gabba Gabba” to a highly regarded stint as ambassador to France — so highly regarded that Rivkin won Senate confirmation by a lopsided 92-6 vote earlier this year to be assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs.

And Obama did not invent the practice of naming big-time donors to diplomatic posts for which they are questionably qualified. Past presidents generally kept to a 70-30 ratio of career diplomats to political appointees. In Obama’s second term so far, however, the ratio runs 58.6 percent to 41.4 percent.

In Mamet’s defense, it’s hardly rare for career diplomats to never have been to a country before they are posted there.

But a look at Mamet's and Bell’s “Certificates of Competency” probably won’t quiet any criticisms. Those are documents that the administration is required by law to draft and submit to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as part of the confirmation process.

Mamet’s consulting company “works closely with a number of the nation’s leading business and philanthropic leaders,” according to his certificate.

“He is known for his management expertise and talented leadership in both the private and public spheres, his knowledge of pressing international issues and his experience working closely with top U.S. officials over the past two decades.”

Mamet’s certificate lists nine campaign or fundraising posts and notes that he served as an election monitor for the National Democratic Institute in Sierra Leone in 1997, when he would have been about 26.

But at least he “speaks conversational Spanish.”

A screen grab of Noah Bryson Mamet being questioned by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (foreign.senate.gov)

Bell “has a strong history of accomplishment in the television industry,” her certificate says.

“Known for her successful leadership in high-profile and influential social service, environmental and arts organizations, she has a wealth of experience in a wide range of fields from the economy, human rights and climate change to foreign policy, public health and education,” it says. And Bell “will bring essential skills to the task of furthering bilateral relations with the Government of Hungary.”

Her arts resume is truly impressive. But a “wealth of experience” in “foreign policy”? The only seemingly relevant entry is her membership in the “Los Angeles Leadership Council and Global Leadership Council of the Natural Resources Defense Council” since 2004.

And “she speaks conversational Spanish,” which probably won’t help that much if she ends up in Hungary.

It is not clear whether or when the Senate will take up the most controversial ambassadonor, real estate investor George Tsunis, whose chances to become ambassador to Norway slipped in January when he did not seem to know what kind of government that country has and attempted to bluff his way through senators’ questions about anti-immigrant sentiment there.

He “speaks conversational Greek.”