Republican senators put holds on two Interior deputies

GOP lawmakers are concerned about the nominees' stances on endangered species rules and Utah land use policies.

The Senate Thursday overwhelmingly confirmed Tom Strickland's nomination as assistant Interior secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, but Republican holds might delay the appointment of two of his fellow deputies at the department.

The Senate, 89-2, approved Strickland, who will continue to be Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's chief of staff. He is only the second of President Obama's nominees for Interior to be confirmed.

Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, Thursday announced he will try to hold up the nomination of Hilary Tompkins to be solicitor at Interior because he wants Salazar to clarify the administration's position on an agreement reached in 2003 between Utah and Interior, where the department agreed to stop designating land as wilderness study areas. Tompkins as solicitor would have to defend that agreement, which resulted from a lawsuit Utah filed against the federal government in 1996.

"I need to better understand the legal opinions and director of who will be the department's chief legal officer and the answers provided just don't cut it," Bennett said. He sent a letter to Salazar Thursday seeking clarification. Salazar is traveling to Utah Friday to tout stimulus money going there.

Bennett said he was frustrated with answers provided by Interior nominees and the department on that and other issues regarding his state.

He also has a hold on David Hayes to be Interior deputy secretary because he wants more answers regarding why the administration canceled oil and gas leases in Utah.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Lisa Murkowski announced Thursday that she will add to Bennett's existing hold on Hayes because of Tuesday's announcement that the administration will toss out Bush administration changes to the Endangered Species Act and reinstate the requirement for federal agencies to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service before doing projects that might harm threatened plants and animals.

She said she was concerned that the administration would drop that rule without following federal due process requirements. "I'm disappointed that the administration would make such a dramatic and far-reaching change in an existing rule without complying with the long-standing federal process requiring public notice and comment by the American people and knowledgeable scientists," she said in a statement.

She said the administration's announcement -- combined with a prior finding that the polar bear is threatened by climate change -- could lead environmentalists to challenge most development in the country.