WASHINGTON - It's probably not the worst sign for an aspiring American diplomat when his congressional grilling ends with Santa Claus jokes.
The would-be next ambassador to Canada, Bruce Heyman, was spared hostile questioning Wednesday during his Senate confirmation hearing.
By the time it was over, the only senator left in the room was the committee chairman and they were sharing chuckles about Old Saint Nick.
"You have displayed your diplomatic abilities in extraordinary fashion," Sen. Robert Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told the rookie diplomat.
This was after an exchange where he'd asked the nominee, tongue planted in cheek, whether an ongoing Arctic mapping project might result in Santa being declared a U.S. citizen.
Heyman's reply: the jolly North Pole resident is, in fact, a citizen of the world, and his safety is guaranteed by a joint Canada-U.S. military initiative, Norad.
And that's where they left off.
If the Senate Foreign Relations committee recommends the appointment, and it's then approved in a vote on the Senate floor, the Chicago investment banker and prominent Democratic party fundraiser will succeed another Chicagoan Democratic party fundraiser as the U.S. envoy to Ottawa.
During the brief hearing, John McCain had asked a couple of terse questions about the Keystone pipeline project.
The former presidential candidate received a non-answer from Heyman, stood up, and left the room.
It was a far cry from the interrogation earlier Wednesday to which McCain had subjected other nominees; he'd pummelled a previous panel with detailed followup questions about aid for Egypt, sanctions for Iran and help for Syrian fighters.
In Heyman's case, he simply asked whether he supported Keystone. Heyman explained that his job wasn't to make a decision on the Alberta-to-Texas pipeline, but merely to explain it to Canadians once a decision is finally made.
"There's a process," Heyman said.
To which McCain retorted: "So you have no position?" Heyman agreed. And McCain promptly left the room, concluding the most challenging moment of Heyman's appearance.
Apart from Santa Claus quips, there was a brief exchange with the committee chair on intellectual property rights.
Menendez called it a "serious problem" that the largest U.S. trading partner has looser rules on patent protection.
The U.S. is believed to be pushing Canada to toughen prescription drug-patent guidelines and legal measures to fight counterfeiting in the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations.
Heyman agreed with the chairman.
"I will take this issue to the Canadian government and I will make this issue an important issue," he said. "Intellectual property rights are the core of what American institutions depend on to compete globally.... American ingenuity is our special sauce."
In his opening remarks, Heyman touted his family ties to Canada. He said his wife's ancestors immigrated to Canada and many family members remained there.
The Goldman Sachs executive said his family bond is hardly unique and is just one example of the "countless links" that bind the countries.
Heyman said the economy would be his top priority, but he stressed that the environment would be another one.
Heyman's nomination process is taking place with Keystone as a backdrop: President Barack Obama has said he won't approve the project if it means a significant increase in greenhouse gases.
Heyman's appointment had been rumoured for months but was one of many executive appointments held up in the Senate throughout 2013.
The chamber's Democratic majority has just adopted new rules to make it easier to override a filibuster, which is spurring a faster flow of nominations.
Some Canada-watchers in Washington described the absence of acrimony Wednesday as an indication that the relationship between the two countries is in pretty good shape.
"I thought Heyman did a terrific job and I hope he's confirmed soon," said Maryscott Greenwood, a former U.S. diplomat and senior adviser to the Canadian-American Business Council.
Following the hearing, senators still had 24 hours to submit questions.
Barring any surprises or delays the confirmation could happen quickly, said one Canadian former diplomat who now heads a consulting business in Washington.
"The questions were quite direct but they weren't contentious in any way," Paul Frazer said of Wednesday's hearing.
"I would hope that, this being the holiday season, the senators will be in a good mood and we can get this confirmation vote to the Senate floor fairly quickly — before the holiday break — and we can hopefully get ambassador-designate Heyman to Ottawa very quickly."