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Tired of GOP delay, Reid to force Senate vote on nomination

WASHINGTON — Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski remains opposed to President Barack Obama's pick for the No. 2 position at the Interior Department, despite the likelihood the full Senate will signal Wednesday in a vote that it plans to confirm the top aide.

Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, last week joined fellow Republican Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah in her "hold" on the nominee, David Hayes. Such a move by a senator keeps a nominee from a confirmation vote unless Senate leaders come up with 60 votes to override the individual senator’s objections.

This week, saying he is frustrated by the slow progress in confirming Obama administration nominees, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., decided to force a vote on Hayes. That means Reid will need 60 votes Wednesday to get the nomination to a formal Senate vote. Reid believes he has the votes for Hayes' nomination to pass, spokesman Jim Manley said.

Murkowski's objections are not necessarily to Hayes himself, she said last week in an 8-page letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Rather, they’re to the administration’s approach to natural resource issues and what she described in the letter as “vague, equivocal, and ultimately meaningless responses to substantive questions” asked of Hayes and other Interior Department nominees at their confirmation hearings.

In the letter, she cited some of Salazar’s first acts as secretary as examples, including his decision to delay for 180 days before acting on the Bush-era five-year plan for oil and gas exploration on the nation’s outer continental shelf.

“My intention is not to make your job more difficult,” Murkowski wrote to Salazar. “My intention is, however, to get clear answers and commitments with regard to what I and the American people should expect from our Interior Department when it comes to the pressing an fragile issues surrounding the stewardship of energy and natural resources on federal public lands under your jurisdiction and mine.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Hayes’ role will be that of the chief operating officer of a federal department with 67,000 employees and an annual budget of $16 billion.

His role is of particular concern in Alaska, where the Interior Department has wide oversight. The agency manages more than 200 million acres of land and the activities within Alaska of the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The administration already has appointed two people to oversee the Interior Department’s activities in Alaska: Kim Elton in Washington D.C. and Pat Pourchot in Anchorage.

Murkowski on Friday said she was pleased by Salazar’s decision last week to let stand a Bush administration rule that proposes to manage polar bears without taking into account greenhouse gases that heat the planet and threaten their sea ice habitat.

“I think his statement is very, very important,” she said. “It sends the right message for this administration.”

But it wasn’t enough, Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon said Monday after Republican staffers on the Energy and Natural Resources committee met with Hayes.

“They still have concerns,” he said of Murkowski and Bennett.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, will split with Murkowski on the vote. In general, Begich supports the president’s right to choose his cabinet, said his spokeswoman, Julie Hasquet.

Hasquet said Begich also was pleased with the signal sent in Salazar’s decision last week on polar bears, and feels that the Interior Department so far under the Obama administration has been “very responsive” to his requests and Alaska’s needs. Salazar and Hayes both came to Alaska within the secretary’s first 90 days in office, Hasquet said, and both attended a town hall meeting in Dillingham, too.

“He seemed very interested in knowing more about Alaska and understanding our issues,” Hasquet said of Hayes.

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