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Republicans in Congress Are Coy About Whether They Would Take Interior Post

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said this week she is not interested in the job

Several senators praised outgoing Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and endorsed his capacity to take on the secretary of the Interior job. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Several senators praised outgoing Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and endorsed his capacity to take on the secretary of the Interior job. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

In anticipation of the appointment of a new Department of the Interior secretary this week, one member of Congress on the reported shortlist has confirmed his interest in the post, but most rumored candidates have shied away from public statements.

President Donald Trump said on Twitter Saturday that he would nominate a replacement to outgoing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke this week. 

Zinke’s tenure was plagued by several investigations into allegations of misused taxpayer funds and conflicts of interest, including an inquiry into dealings with a developer working on a project near land in Montana that he and his wife, Lola, own. The Interior Department’s inspector general referred that matter to the Justice Department.

Speculation about who will replace the former congressman has centered on a handful of Republican members or former members of Congress from western states. The lawmakers would be likely to uphold an overhaul of the department under Zinke that has included a dramatic carve out of protected national monuments and fewer hurdles for oil and gas drilling on federal lands.

Several senators praised outgoing Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada and endorsed his capacity to take on the Cabinet position in interviews with E&E News.

“Having worked with Dean, a guy from the West, he gets it clearly,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Some Democratic senators also signaled Heller would be easily confirmed if nominated, the site reported.

“My goodness, we could do a whole lot worse than that,” Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, another member of the Energy and Natural Resources panel, said in response to rumors about Heller being considered by the White House.

Heller was defeated by Jacky Rosen in his bid for re-election last month. He left open the possibility of joining the Trump administration in an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal prior to Zinke’s resignation.

A spokesman for GOP Rep. Jeff Denham of California confirmed to ABC10 that he is being considered by the White House and interested in the position. Denham was unseated in the 10th District last month despite his battle against state plans to direct water out of the Central Valley and into the ocean in order to preserve salmon populations, according to McClatchy. Denham flanked Trump as he signed legislation to direct more federal funding to water infrastructure projects while deauthorizing spending on certain water resources development projects.

Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, the presumptive ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee when the new Congress begins in January, did not confirm he was seeking the job, but did say Zinke’s successor “must have the knowhow” to see his legacy through.

“Whoever is selected as the next Secretary of the Interior, they must continue addressing the maintenance backlog on public lands, continue the effort to reorganize the department, and continue to engage state and local officials,” Bishop said. “Secretary Zinke had the vision to start this process and his successor must have the knowhow to bring it to a conclusion.”

Both Heller and Bishop lobbied the White House to slash the boundaries protecting national monuments, including Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada and the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, the Review-Journal reported.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers was among those considered for the position as Trump was building his cabinet after his election in 2016, but a person familiar with the congresswoman’s thinking said Monday that she is “not seeking or interested in Interior.”

Rep. Raúl Labrador of Idaho met with White House officials about the appointment the same day, an unidentified congressional aide told The Associated Press. A co-founder of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, Labrador lost a bid to become Idaho’s governor in the primary. His voting record on rolling back environmental regulations and protected lands has garnered a 4 percent lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters.

Labrador did not respond to requests for comment.

Environmental groups have conceded that any nominee for secretary will likely uphold the White House’s executive order prioritizing energy production over conservation.

“As long as the Trump administration is willing to ignore the economic and other interests of Westerners, tribes, and countless other Americans to favor the short-term interests of a few deep-pocketed industry lobbyists, we are not confident that anyone can fulfill the role of the Interior Secretary,” Environmental Defense Fund leaders wrote in a blog post on Monday.

Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt — who will assume the title of acting secretary in January, and may also be nominated to the role permanently — has implemented this “energy dominance” vision of the department, National Parks Traveler reported.

At the same time, congressional Democrats have vowed to scrutinize Zinke’s “haphazard” plan to reorganize the department by dispatching D.C. staffers to regional field offices. 

“I expect the new Congress will bring with it much needed scrutiny into the serious ramifications of the reorganization effort for states, Tribes, and the nation,” New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall said in a statement to E&E News.

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