With former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's prospects of claiming the White House brightening in the wake of the recent presidential debate, it's no longer just the GOP optimists who are trying to picture what a Romney Cabinet might look like. These days Republican political insiders on and off Capitol Hill are busy making lists of potential Cabinet picks and checking them twice.
And one post receiving an amplified amount of attention in light of Romney's heavy campaign trail focus on American energy development is Interior secretary.
GOP insiders have already floated the names of a handful of senators, members of the House, governors and an industry leader as potential candidates for the slot.
And the job would be a big one. Romney has repeatedly vowed to achieve North American energy independence by streamlining permitting rules, increasing drilling offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline. With much of that work falling in the realm of the Interior Department, the secretary job is likely to take on a heightened level of importance in a Romney administration.
As such, insiders said last week they believe it unlikely that Romney would use his Interior selection to simply find a place for loyal Republicans who may have found themselves on the losing side of an election this fall.
"I think they are going to be less inclined to say, 'Who's a good Republican? Who needs a job?" said a GOP source who has been involved with multiple transition teams. "They are looking for someone who can make a difference and make things work. ... That job is not easy, and you're going to need someone who can handle the bureaucracy, make a good case for what the administration wants to do and is prepared for the criticism they'll take from the environmental community."
If Romney were to follow the pattern established by both Democratic and Republican presidents over the past 24 years -- as most insiders expect he would -- his Interior secretary would hail from a Western state and have served either in Congress or as governor or state attorney general.
And although Romney's Massachusetts-based campaign brain trust might try to push back against selecting a Westerner, it would be a particularly hard argument to make because the federal government owns 62 percent of Alaska and 47 percent of the 11 contiguous Western states but 4 percent of lands in all other states.
Among those who would fit the profile are Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), who currently serves as ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Murkowski is an expert on drilling and permitting issues and would have immediate creditability when it comes to ANWR and Arctic drilling issues.
But Murkowski would have to decide whether heading a Cabinet agency would be more desirable than being a leader on energy issues on Capitol Hill. Even if Republicans don't take the Senate in November and Murkowski doesn't get the committee gavel, she would still hold great sway as the committee's ranking member, and she appears to have a good relationship with likely panel Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). This summer Wyden traveled to Alaska to tour a range of the state's energy resources at Murkowski's invitation.
"There's a lot of positive things someone like Senator Murkowski, who understands the importance of responsible resource development, could do for Alaska as Interior secretary," Murkowski's committee spokesman Robert Dillon said last week.
"But Senator Murkowski still has four years left in her third term, and there are a lot of issues that are critical to Alaskans beyond the scope of the Interior Department -- things like tax reform, Medicare, the Indian Health Service, Arctic policy, fisheries management. For her, the question would be where she could best serve the needs of Alaskans."
Another Energy and Natural Resources Committee Republican who fits the profile is Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso. Familiar with energy and public lands issues, Barrasso has been a leading critic in Congress of the Obama administration's oil and gas regulations and coal policies.
But Barrasso is also set to win his first full term this fall, having been appointed to the Senate following Sen. Craig Thomas' (R) death and winning a special election in 2008 for the remaining four years of Thomas' term. Even if he is interested in the secretary job, Barrasso's camp is keeping its cards close during an election year.
"This is not something he has considered," spokeswoman Laura Mengelkamp said. "Senator Barrasso is focused on serving the citizens of Wyoming in the Senate."
South Dakota Sen. John Thune (R), the ranking member of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Subcommittee on Jobs, Rural Economic Growth and Energy Innovation, is also mentioned as a potential Interior pick. But unlike some other Cabinet posts, the Interior secretary position isn't usually seen as a steppingstone to further one's political career. More often, it is a job that is taken at or near the end of one's political life.
And with Thune, 51, viewed as a rising star and potential future presidential candidate, the Interior slot may not be the right fit for him.
Arizona Sen. John Kyl, who is also running for re-election, and Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, who will wrap up his third term in 2014, were also mentioned last week as contenders.
Inhofe, ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is a businessman and former real estate developer whose private-sector background might fit well with Romney's push to make the federal government operate more like a business. But having famously dubbed global warming a hoax, Inhofe likely would prove a controversial pick.
But one adviser to the Romney campaign said last week that it would be a mistake to just look at senators as possible appointees.
The Romney adviser said that not only would House Republicans have in potential Vice President Paul Ryan a strong voice in the selection process, but that they have earned the opportunity to have a role in a Romney administration.
"They've been really out there providing the leverage to keep the Obama administration from being as negative on energy production as they would have been," the adviser said of House Republicans, who unlike their Senate counterparts have the ability to call hearings and control their chamber's agenda. "How much would we have heard about Solyndra if it hadn't been for the House? How much on wild lands policy? ... There's a lot of reasons why the House needs to be rewarded, because they've been leading on policy."
House Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) would probably be the most natural pick from the House for the Interior post. But Hastings is also a potential choice for chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee in the next Congress. That post opened up late this year with the retirement of current Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.).
But Hastings has competition for the Rules gavel in current National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas). If he loses out on the Rules chairmanship, Hastings -- who ran a paper and supply company before running for elected office -- might be more inclined to make the jump to a Cabinet post, especially because he would have to leave his Natural Resources Committee chairmanship at the end of the 113th Congress because of term limits.
If Hastings were to pass up the job, Romney might turn to Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah).
A fellow Mormon and senior member of the Natural Resources Committee, Bishop has the policy chops -- and has already expressed an interest in a position at Interior (E&E Daily, Sept. 14). But the congressman's willingness to join a Romney administration might change if Hastings gets the Rules Committee chairmanship next year and Bishop finds himself with the Natural Resources Committee's gavel.
Two House Republicans who work on energy and Interior issues from seats on the powerful Appropriations Committee also might be in the mix for the Interior job -- Reps. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Denny Rehberg of Montana. Both are in the midst of tough Senate campaigns this fall, and one or the other might be especially inclined to push for the post if he loses his bid in November.
Governors, industry officials
Outside Congress, three potential picks from the ranks of current and former governors that have been mentioned for the Interior post are former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and current Govs. Butch Otter of Idaho and Sean Parnell of Alaska, both of whom will finish their terms at the end of 2014.
Otter is a former congressman who has served as the Gem State's governor since 2007. He has been a vocal critic of the Obama administration's federal land management in Idaho and has pushed for more state control when it comes to lands issues.
Parnell also has shown a willingness to go toe to toe with the Obama administration on a variety of energy and lands issues. But some Republicans put the 50-year-old more into the category of a rising star who might have his sights set on other elected posts.
Owens, who left office in 2007, is a longtime Romney supporter who is still active in land, water and energy issues through his Colorado-based development firm. He serves as a "senior adviser" to Romney's campaign.
If Romney were to buck tradition and pick a candidate with less political and more business background, several insiders mentioned American Petroleum Institute President and CEO Jack Gerard. Gerard, also a Mormon, has been mentioned for other Romney administrations posts as well, from Energy secretary to chief of staff.
Considering the likely importance of the Interior post in a Romney administration, few GOP insiders believe Romney would turn to a Democrat to lead the department. While it would certainly be a gesture to bipartisanship, insiders point out that there are plenty of other less high-profile Cabinet positions where Romney could make that gesture.
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