Interior secretary's very popularity limits his chances for nomination


June 12, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- If Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt loses out as the president's first appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, it will be largely because of one insurmountable problem.

He was too popular.

Calling the former Arizona governor "irreplaceable," environmental groups lobbied hard to keep him in place at Interior. Western lawmakers, too, didn't want to lose a politician and advocate of such stature and clout.

As a result, President Clinton may turn to Federal Appeals Court Judge Stephen G. Breyer for the lifetime court appointment rather than hassle with finding a replacement for Mr. Babbitt and risk another Cabinet confirmation fight.

Mr. Babbitt acknowledged as much when asked by reporters in Texas whether his Supreme Court prospects were being scuttled by environmentalists.

"Well, it is kind of interesting," he said. "You know, I can handle my enemies. But I have a hard time fending off my friends this time around."

But just as Mr. Babbitt's 1988 bid for the presidency boosted his profile and his career, this week's Babbitt buzz instantly catapulted the smart and likable lawyer into one of Washington's hottest properties.

Although some of his supporters were angered by the president's floating his name as the front-runner without a commitment to nominate him, Mr. Babbitt, 54, viewed the episode as a win-win proposition for him.

'Content either way'

"I am quite content either way -- quite content," he said Thursday. "Obviously if asked, I would accept. There is nothing but an upside for me however this comes out. . . . My consolation prize is I get to spend my summers fishing in Alaska and camping in Yellowstone doing a job I really love."

Some Republicans complained that Mr. Babbitt had no judicial experience.

And even some of his friends had a hard time picturing such an energetic, outdoorsy guy -- a guy who loves the hurly-burly of politics -- spending the rest of his professional life in such a cloistered, quiet setting.

Sitting around the table at the Phoenix YMCA last week, the regular early-bird set of lawyers, teachers and bankers chewed over the topic with their morning coffee -- with some wondering how the high bench could possibly be exciting enough for their former governor, others wondering what could be more exciting.

"There was no consensus," recalled Edward Jacobson, a Phoenix lawyer and longtime Babbitt friend, in a phone interview. "Bruce usually brings consensus. But we couldn't get one about him."

Indeed, it is Mr. Babbitt's talent in the coalition-building business that got him considered for a Supreme Court appointment -- and that has turned him into such a valued player in Washington.

The third-generation scion of a wealthy Arizona pioneer family, Mr. Babbitt is a master consensus-builder and pragmatist who, though he may roam the Grand Canyon with an almost poetic love of nature, finds other pleasures in closing ideological chasms.

"He's always had an unbelievable capacity for analyzing problems and finding creative ways to reconcile competing interests -- and make people feel good about it," says State Department spokesman Michael McCurry, press secretary for Mr. Babbitt during his 1988 presidential bid. "That's the hallmark of his public service."

At Interior, where he oversees nearly one-third of the nation's land, his talk of a new paradigm for the American West has rejuvenated a department that sits at the crossroads of the nation's battles over conservation and development.

Political prowess

Environmental groups praise his political prowess in nurturing both the economy and the environment -- and in reversing what they regard as 12 years of Republican disregard for public lands.

One of his goals is to head off conflicts, such as the one between Pacific Northwest loggers and conservationists over the spotted owl, by redirecting the Endangered Species Act to take action before such problems reach the boiling point.

Traveling the West, he has been somewhat successful in convincing wary Western businesses that, although he presided over the League of Conservation Voters before heading Interior and calls for increased mining, grazing and logging fees, he is no ideologue, no "scary green devil," as he says, and will look out for economic interests.

His track record suggests he can pull off such a balancing act.

As Democratic governor of one of the most conservative states in the union, Mr. Babbitt won high marks for forging compromise, not only with the Republican legislature, but often between the virulently competing environmental and industrial interests of his state.

He pushed through education and health care reforms like many other progressive governors of the early '80s, including then-Arkansas Gov.Bill Clinton.

But one of his greatest triumphs was shepherding a ground water code through the Legislature, a project that brought to the table all of the state's deadlocked warring parties -- miners, ranchers, rural and urban interests.

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