Washington • As a Senate committee prepares to vote on the nomination of Sally Jewell to head the Interior Department, members are struggling to exact promises from Jewell on what actions she would take as secretary.
The Senate and Natural Resources Committee meets Thursday morning to potentially vote on Jewell’s nomination, and although no widespread opposition is expected, senators have pressed Jewell to commit one way or another on key issues to their home states.
Jewell, the former head of Recreational Equipment Inc., has carefully maneuvered away from giving direct answers.
"I am not familiar with the specifics of projects that have been authorized but not constructed, but I understand their importance to their communities and their constituents," Jewell responded to written questions from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, over the backlog of Bureau of Reclamation projects. "If confirmed, I will work to better understand this issue."
As in her confirmation hearing earlier this month, Jewell was cautious in how she responded to some 206 written questions asked of her afterwards by the senators who could vote Thursday.
Most of her answers are shorter than the questions, and often the nominee responds that if confirmed, she’ll work with all involved to find the best solutions.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, tried to get Jewell to commit to continuous dialogue about the one-time push for a wildlands policy — which would designate swaths as sensitive without congressional approval — and promise to withdraw manuals that used the language from the shelved policy.
Jewell answered one of the questions this way: "Communication and collaboration are priorities in all my endeavors.… If confirmed, I commit to working with Congress and stakeholders to discuss important issues such as this."
She avoided any vow to withdraw the Bureau of Land Management manuals but noted that since Congress cut any funding for wildlands, she would follow their guidance.
Taking advantage of the confirmation process to try to secure pledges is nothing new in Congress.
In 2009, then-Sen. Bob Bennett held up the nominee for Interior’s No. 2 spot until he got answers on why the Obama administration pulled 77 oil and gas leases. He later made Interior’s solicitor nominee vow not to go back on an agreement between Utah’s former governor and the department.
Steve Bloch, an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said Jewell’s responses were wise.
"Ms. Jewell is already showing her business acumen by refusing to answer senators’ questions or commit to do certain things in the abstract," Bloch said.
A spokesman for Murkowski, the top Republican on the Energy committee, says there’s an understanding that Jewell won’t be able to make promises on every issue, but she can at least pledge to work with the states and local officials.
"Overall, there is a concern by Murkowski, and Western senators share in this, that the Interior Department has not been a good partner with states and not worked with the states," said spokesman Robert Dillon. "Murkowski is looking for a commitment that she will work with the states to resolve these issues."
Although a vote on Jewell is scheduled Thursday, the committee could hold the decision until a later point.
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