INTERIOR:

Anonymous GOP 'hold' blocks solicitor nominee

An anonymous Senate Republican is blocking the confirmation of Hilary Tompkins as the Interior Department's solicitor, drawing the ire of Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman.

On the Senate floor today, the New Mexico Democrat asked for an agreement to approve Tompkins' nomination, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) objected on behalf of an unnamed colleague.

"We've not been able to get that nomination clear yet on this side, but we'll be consulting with our Republican colleagues," McConnell said.

Bingaman said one or more Republican senators have placed the procedural "hold" on the nominee for a post he described as one of Interior's most important. Bingaman praised Tompkins' expertise and noted that she would be the first American Indian and second woman to hold the position.

"I'm obviously disappointed there has been an objection raised," Bingaman said. "It's unclear why anyone would object to confirming Ms. Tompkins. ... More than four months into the new administration, the department should not be without its top legal [adviser]. Ms. Tompkins should not be the victim of anonymous holds."

Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she did not place the hold and did not know which senator did or why.

The nomination also had been blocked by Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) over the issue of wilderness designations in Utah, but Bennett lifted his hold just before the Memorial Day recess.

Bennett had been dissatisfied with Tompkins' answers to his questions about whether she agreed that Interior has no authority to establish new wilderness study areas in Utah. As solicitor, she would have to defend a 2003 agreement reached by former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) and former Interior Secretary Gale Norton under which Interior agreed to cease designating land units as wilderness study areas. The deal stemmed from a 1996 lawsuit that Utah filed against the federal government.

At her confirmation hearing in April, Tompkins told Bennett the issue is new to her but that she would look at it closely if confirmed.

Bennett lifted his hold after after receiving written answers from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that the agreement is consistent with federal law and that the department currently has no authority to establish new wilderness study areas in the state. But Salazar added that the department still has the ability to protect areas with wilderness characteristics through the land-use planning process.

Bennett, who is up for re-election next year and faces a GOP primary challenger, also blocked the nomination of David Hayes to be Interior deputy secretary for nearly two months over Utah oil and gas leases that the Obama administration put on hold in February.

An enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, Tompkins served as counsel to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) from 2003 to 2008. Previously, she was an associate at Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry, where she focused on water and environmental law. She also served as general counsel to several Indian tribes nationwide and was responsible for federal and tribal court litigation. From 1998 to 1999, she worked as special assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Salazar noted that Tompkins will face many pressing legal issues, ranging from management of federal lands to conserving endangered species to American Indian concerns.

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