Interior staff's top seats in limbo
Washington » The Interior Department's Web site links to a page highlighting key officials. It's blank.
The department, which manages millions of acres of public lands, including large swaths of Utah, is still waiting for most of its top people.
At the moment, Secretary Ken Salazar is the only official who has been confirmed by the Senate to serve at the department under President Barack Obama and several others are awaiting hearings or votes.
Part of the holdup stems from a clash with Utah's two senators and part with a slowdown of the vetting process to appoint new political designees for the department.
"It's tough," Salazar told The Salt Lake Tribune recently. "We need to have a government that's up and running on behalf of the people of the United States of America. And it's important for us to have our assistant secretaries and heads of the agencies in place."
Interior isn't the only department that's awaiting confirmations. With the Obama administration looking to fill thousands of jobs and the sometimes-elongated Senate process to finalize a selection, it may take several more months to get political appointees into key spots.
But Salazar says the lack of top officials at his department is hampering his ability to move forward with his agenda.
"We have a lot of work to do and some of it is on hold simply because we don't have the personnel confirmed as of this point," Salazar said. "We're moving very hard to accomplish our goals and we're doing it, but we will be able to do it more successfully when we get our entire team in place."
Sen. Bob Bennett, for one, isn't sure he wants that team in place.
Bennett has placed a hold on the nomination of David Hayes to be deputy secretary out of concern about Salazar's decision to pull back on 77 leases for oil and gas drilling on public lands in Utah.
He says it's nothing personal against Hayes, but he wants answers before he lets that nomination move forward.
"It's the only leverage we have on getting the department to pay attention on some very important issues," Bennett said. "I've made it very clear that I want to work with [Salazar] as closely as we can ... but I can't just take an assurance from him that 'oh yes, we'll settle this,' and they'll give me everything we want."
Bennett says the way Salazar canceled the lease auction has made people in Utah and other Senate colleagues -- whom he didn't name -- concerned about the department's potential future actions.
His message to Salazar is, "You have sent ripples of fear throughout the state and beyond the state on what type of administration you want with what you've done here," Bennett says.
Senate GOP colleague, Orrin Hatch, shares the concern.
Hatch also opposes Salazar's cancellation of that lease sale, arguing that Interior took the side of the environmental group Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance in opposing those leases.
"They took away parcels that were fairly auctioned and parcels that have been examined for years," Hatch said this week. "I can see why we don't want more of these type of people in the department. We want fairness there. We want [a department] that doesn't choose one side or the other, but follows the law."
He adds that he's not sure Hayes is the right person for the job and Hatch backs using a hold -- a Senate procedure that allows one member to block a nominee or legislation -- as the right tool to stop Hayes from getting his Interior perch.
For SUWA, the slowdown in confirming Interior officials means a delay in what the administration can and needs to do with the nation's public lands.
"For the Interior Department to move forward and tackle pressing issues like the Bush administration's legacy on public lands and ... clean renewable energy, it needs to be fully staffed with experienced people like Mr. Hayes," said Richard Peterson-Cremer, SUWA's Washington legislative director.
"Senator Bennett's decision to put a hold on Mr. Hayes' nomination is unfortunate and a diversion from the real work at hand."
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee gave its nod to Hayes' nomination, though Bennett's hold means it won't move on the Senate floor. A similar hold has been placed on Tom Strickland, who was named assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife, though Bennett denies he's blocking that one.
When it returns to session today, the Senate is expected to start tackling nominations of several other departments, though it's unclear when some of the Interior designees will get hearings.
The Obama administration, too, has yet to name some positions, including the director of the Bureau of Land Management.
Secretary Ken Salazar
Waiting for confirmation
David Hayes » deputy secretary
Tom Strickland » assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife
Hilary Tompkins » solicitor
Rhea Suh » assistant secretary for Policy, Management and Budget
Anne Castle » assistant secretary for Water and Science
Mike Connor » director, Bureau of Reclamation
Larry EchoHawk » assistant secretary for Indian Affairs
Will Shafroth » deputy assistant secretary
Ned Farquhar » deputy assistant secretary
Deana Archuletta » deputy assistant secretary
Secretary Ken Salazar
David Hayes - deputy secretary
Tom Strickland - assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife
Hilary Tompkins - solicitor
Rhea Suh - assistant secretary for Policy, Management and Budget
Anne Castle - assistant secretary for Water and Science
Mike Connor - director, Bureau of Reclamation
Larry EchoHawk - assistant secretary for Indian Affairs
Will Shafroth, deputy assistant secretary
Ned Farquhar, deputy assistant secretary
Deana Archuletta, deputy assistant secretary