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Obama ambassador nominees — Baucus, Bell and Tsunis — hit bumps in hearings

“I’m no real expert on China,” outgoing Sen.  Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on his nomination to become U.S. ambassador to China. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

There’s little doubt that outgoing Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) will be confirmed as President Obama’s next ambassador to China, despite a somewhat less-than-stellar performance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) asked: If, as Baucus indicated, the “Chinese leadership’s primary motivation is the well-being” of its citizens, then “what do you think would motivate them to initiate the air defense notification zone?” (As Loop fans know, this is a dangerous escalation by a bellicose China in an already nasty dispute with Japan over islands — and undersea riches — in the East China Sea.)

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

Baucus started with a jaw-dropper: “I’m no real expert on China.” He continued with an awkward comment about his “strong belief that the Chinese people are just as proud as we Americans are proud.” Still, he seemed to understand the serious implications of Beijing’s gambit.

That moment recalled some truly embarrassing committee appearances this month by mega-bundler Obama nominees when they were questioned by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Colleen Bell, the Hollywood producer behind the TV soap “The Bold and the Beautiful,” raised or contributed about $800,000 to Obama 2012, according to So she was picked as ambassador to Hungary — a country that, as we’ve noted, has vexed Washington of late over human rights and other issues.

“What are our strategic interests in Hungary?” McCain asked.

“Well, we have,” Bell said, “our strategic interests, in terms of what are our key priorities in Hungary, I think our key priorities are to improve upon, as I mentioned, the security relationship and also the law enforcement and to promote business opportunities, increase trade . . . ”

McCain interrupted: “I’d like to ask again what our strategic interests in Hungary are.”

“Our strategic interests are to work collaboratively as NATO allies,” she said, “to work to promote and protect the security, both — for both countries and for — and for the world, to continue working together on the cause of human rights around the world, to build that side of our relationship while also maintaining and pursuing some difficult conversations that might be necessary in the coming years.”

“Great answer,” McCain said, dripping scorn.

McCain then turned to George Tsunis, founder and chief executive of Chartwell Hotels, who bundled or contributed more than $1.3 million for Obama in 2012 — and gave $50,000 to McCain in 2008! — and thus is the nominee for ambassador to Norway. His performance, one Norwegian news outlet said, was “faltering, incoherent” and displayed a “total ignorance” of the country.

McCain asked him about the “anti-immigration” Progress Party in Norway.

“You get some fringe elements that have a microphone and spew their hatred,” Tsunis said. “And I will tell you Norway has been very quick to denounce them.”

“The government has denounced them?” McCain said. They are “part of the governing coalition,” he said, so they were hardly being denounced.

“I have no more questions for this incredibly highly qualified group of nominees,” McCain derisively concluded after another minute or so.

He gets around

Chatter has it that Obama is getting close to announcing a successor to White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler, who’s leaving soonish for private practice in New York.

As we reported last month, the search was on for someone who’s a legal powerhouse with some substantial private-practice and political or legislative experience — someone like a Lloyd Cutler or an Abner Mikva.

The two top contenders, we had heard, were former associate attorney general Tom Perrelli , Obama’s former Harvard Law Review colleague and a good pal, and former Clinton White House associate counsel Neil Eggleston .

The smart money appears to be moving to Eggleston, a veteran Washington hand and white-collar defense lawyer. He was former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s attorney during the trial of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, worked on executive-privilege matters for the Bill Clinton White House during the Monica Lewinsky affair, and defended lots of other top officials.

He was also a Supreme Court clerk to Chief Justice Warren Burger. The mind reels: Rahm and Warren, together again.

Cape Cod and then . . .

John Beale, the former senior Environmental Protection Agency official who was sentenced on Dec. 18 to 32 months in prison for stealing nearly $900,000 from the government by pretending to work for the CIA, is off to his Massachusetts vacation home this weekend.

Beale, you may recall, duped EPA folks by telling them his absences from the office were related to his top-secret work for the CIA and its “directorate of operations.” He also lied about getting malaria (he didn’t) while he served in Vietnam (he didn’t) to get an EPA parking space reserved for the disabled.

He hasn’t reported to prison. But he’s paid off his $507,000 fine plus $886,186 in restitution by check (apparently didn’t bounce). A judge this week agreed to his attorney’s request — unopposed by prosecutors — that he be allowed to go to his home in tony Truro on Cape Cod “so he can meet with contractors and property managers to arrange for the long-term maintenance, upkeep and potential rental” of the place while he’s, uh, away.

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