WASHINGTON -- Gale A. Norton's nomination as Interior secretary won easy approval from a Senate committee Wednesday after Democrats on the panel served notice that they will be watching to make sure she keeps her promises to uphold environmental laws.
The 18-2 vote by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee signaled sure confirmation for Norton, who had seemed likely to be one of President Bush's most hotly opposed Cabinet selections. But she defused most of her Democratic critics with conciliatory answers during hearings last week to questions about her commitment to protecting the environment.
Still, her answers also mean that she will have a delicate balancing act in her new role. She would take the helm of the department at a time when mining and energy interests, as well as ranchers and recreational users, are eager to expand their access to public lands. Many of these interests poured money into Bush's campaign during the 2000 election cycle and are counting on new opportunities for mineral extraction, oil drilling, logging and snowmobiling.
Norton's reputation going into the hearings -- as painted by environmentalists -- suggested that she would lend strong support to such efforts. Now that she has struck a more moderate tone, her early actions as secretary will be under close scrutiny.
The challenges she faces will be heightened by Bush's desire to increase domestic energy production. And her actions will be particularly pertinent to the West, given the vast swaths of federally owned land in the region.
The full Senate vote on her appointment is set for Tuesday.
Most of the Democrats who voted for her Wednesday said that Norton had successfully assured them she is a "passionate conservationist" and would enforce existing environmental laws, regardless of positions she has argued in the past.
The Democrats stressed that they remain skeptical.
"I have had serious doubts whether Ms. Norton is sufficiently sensitive to our natural resources," said the panel's ranking Democrat, Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico. "For over 20 years she has championed positions that I believe are inconsistent with the responsibilities of the secretary of the Interior," he added.
But, he said, Norton's answers during two days of hearings and in more than 280 written queries convinced him that she will conserve public lands, enforce the Endangered Species Act and the Surface Mining Act and protect the environment for future generations.
"I take her at her word," Bingaman said. "Her actions as secretary will ultimately speak louder than anything she has said."
Norton also backtracked from a 1997 statement that seemed to dismiss the threat of global warming. "There is beginning to be more of a consensus that global warming is occurring," she said, while adding that disagreement continues over its causes and how to combat it.
An array of environmentalists, including some Republicans, opposed Norton, pointing to her record of favoring private property rights over conservation and fighting federal pollution-control efforts.
Norton worked for the Interior Department under Secretary James Watt, who headed the department under President Reagan and was heavily criticized by environmentalists. More recently, as attorney general of Colorado, she argued that the Endangered Species Act was unconstitutional. As a private attorney, she was a registered lobbyist for NL Industries of Houston, a defendant in cases involving scores of Superfund sites and a dozen instances of children's exposure to lead paint.
"After a career spent trying to dismantle laws protecting our national parks, streams and wildlife, we're skeptical about Norton's sudden U-turn on these issues," Sierra Club President Carl Pope said Wednesday. "Senators extracted from Norton a pledge to uphold the laws safeguarding our public lands but we believe a lifetime of actions speak louder than two days of words."
Eight Democrats joined all 10 Republicans on the committee in voting for Norton. Opposing her were Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.
California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, in explaining her vote for Norton, said: "I believe she does care (about protecting the environment). And, I must say, I think some of the things said about her are simply not correct."
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