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The next U.S. ambassador to Canada is likely to find settling in to the job a little rougher than most of his predecessors. Pipeline politics could be the snag in a usually smooth confirmation.
The Keystone XL pipeline has become a symbolic environment-versus-economy debate in Washington, and Republicans are likely to at least give the next envoy a good grilling in the Senate confirmation hearings, and possibly delay it to press U.S. President Barack Obama to decide whether it will go ahead.
Washington usually doesn't muster a passing glance to issues in Canada, but Keystone XL is serious politics: the State department's review has sparked an unprecedented 1.2 million public comments, the Congress is debating a (probably doomed) bill to take the decision away from the White House, and lobbyists on both sides are spilling millions to fight the battle.
Mr. Obama hasn't yet nominated a successor to current ambassador David Jacobson, who leaves the embassy July 15 to take a new post as vice-chair of the Bank of Montreal.
But the name of the man being vetted for the job has already leaked: he's Bruce Heyman, a Goldman Sachs executive from Chicago, who, like Mr. Jacobson, was an Obama campaign fundraiser. He's one of the few top investment bankers, especially from Goldman, who stuck with Mr. Obama in 2012, and his wife, Vicki, worked on the U.S. President's Illinois campaign.
The ambassadorship in Ottawa is considered a plum gig, not as high-profile as London or Paris, perhaps, but still laden with important files in a friendly country and topped off with perks like a palatial residence and private chef.
But this time it's more than possible that it comes with the less lovely task of facing stonewalling Republican senators demanding to know whether Mr. Obama will approve Keystone XL, and when.
It's an easier issue for Republicans, who are generally united on the pro-XL side, and argue it is, as Mitt Romney said, a "no-brainer" that's good for energy independence, the economy, and jobs.
The Democrats, however, are divided, and the hearings provide Republicans an opportunity to make their opponents squirm. Environmentalists, largely pro-Democrat, have made Keystone a symbol for the oil sands, and the oil sands a symbol for climate change. But many Democrats want to approve it, for energy independence and jobs, including a lot of labour unions. "Their base is pretty well split," said former U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins, a Republican.
The Democrats have the majority in the Senate, but that doesn't mean Mr. Heyman – presuming his nomination goes ahead – will sail through confirmation hearings. One senator alone can delay it for a while, and 45 Republicans can hold it up for a good long time. At the very least, Mr. Heyman can expect to be bombarded by sharp questions.
Whether that will mushroom into more is unclear. Mr. Wilkins noted that everyone knows that the ambassadorial nominee won't be making the decision on Keystone. But of course, he will be the administration's representative in the Senate hot seat.
Mr. Wilkins noted he went to his confirmation hearings prepared for questions on softwood lumber and border blockages and Mad Cow disease, but got only general questions – but those were bigger issues for Canada than the U.S. Congress. "This [Keystone] is percolating on the Hill a lot more," he said.
Mr. Heyman's task, like any nominee for such a post, is "to make no news," he said. And the Obama administration and Secretary of State John Kerry have deflected questions by repeating there is a "process" for approval – a review then an "national-interest determination" – that takes time. One thing is certain, said Mr. Wilkins, is that if he gets a grilling, the nominee "will be prepared for it."
Campbell Clark covers foreign affairs in Ottawa.