Interior nominee defends record

Norton tells panel she's `a conservative and a conservationist'

January 19, 2001|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Gale A. Norton, the Bush administration's nominee for secretary of the interior, told a Senate committee yesterday that she "will support the goals" of the nation's environmental laws even though she thinks some of them impose too many burdens on the states.

As her confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee began yesterday, Norton said the coalition of environmental groups opposing her appointment has painted a distorted picture of her views.

"I am both a conservative and a conservationist. I see no conflict there," Norton said. "I feel very comfortable in assuring the members of this committee that the laws will be enforced."

Commenting on a newspaper ad sponsored by 16 environmental groups describing her as "so far on the fringe ... she's off the page," Norton said, "It doesn't hurt my feelings that much because it doesn't sound like me."

Norton and Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft are considered the most conservative of President-elect George W. Bush's appointees.

A former two-term Colorado attorney general, Norton began her career working for the ultra-conservative Mountain States Legal Defense Foundation, then headed by James G. Watt. Norton later worked for Watt during his tumultuous tenure as President Ronald Reagan's secretary of the interior. Now a private attorney in Denver, she has been a fellow of several conservative foundations.

The environmental groups are mounting a campaign to block her confirmation because they fear that her ardent support of states' rights and private property owners puts her at odds with environmental protection.

Among past writings and speeches cited by her opponents are a 1989 talk in which suggested that private landowners might have "a right to pollute" and a 1995 "friend of the court" brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, in which she argued that parts of the Endangered Species Act are unconstitutional. The Supreme Court upheld the law.

Under questioning from Democratic senators, Norton backed away from both positions.

"I will certainly uphold the position taken by the U.S. Supreme Court and will enforce the Endangered Species Act," she said.

And, she said, "The idea of a right to pollute is not something I would support."

She said when she speculated about such a right early in her career, she was talking about "emissions credits" - the idea that companies which exceed their goals for cutting air or water pollution might sell credits to companies that can't clean up as well. The text of the 1989 speech, published by a Harvard University legal journal, does not mention emissions credits, but quotes Norton as saying her topic was "how to protect property from excessive regulation."

Republican committee members, most of them fellow Westerners, vowed to support Norton and told her she was being unfairly attacked.

"The billing that you're getting is not holding up," said Republican Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho. "The record will set you free, because it is an outstanding record."

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat and the committee's acting chairman, said Norton appears to have the support of all 50 Republican senators and will probably be confirmed. But he said many Democrats won't decide how to vote until the hearing ends.

Norton "has consistently championed the interest of the individual as opposed to the public interest," Bingaman said.

"She's championed the states over the federal government and economic development rather than environmental protection," he said. "Some of those positions, at least to my mind, are disturbing in a nominee for the secretary of the interior."

Alyssondra Campaigne, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which opposes the Norton nomination, said the environmental groups will consider their campaign a success even if Norton is confirmed.

"We know it's an uphill battle," Campaigne said, "but this is all about educating Congress and educating the public and educating Norton herself about what's at stake over the next four years."

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