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Interior nominee Kempthorne pressed on BIA vacancy

Indianz.Com Listening Lounge, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmation hearing for Interior Secretary nominee Dirk Kempthorne, May 4, 2006.

Introduction by Idaho Senators - 8:31 - 1.9MB

Opening Statements by Senators - 44:54 - 10.2MB

Dirk Kempthorne Statement - 14:57 - 3.4MB

Q&A I - 35:41 - 8.2MB | Q&A - 41:42 - 9.5MB | Q&A - 26:49 - 6.1MB

Text: Kempthorne Statement
Prominent Republicans and Democrats used the confirmation hearing of Interior Secretary nominee Dirk Kempthorne on Thursday to press for a new leader of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico), the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said it was "shameful" that the BIA's top position has been vacant for more than a year. He hoped Kempthorne's confirmation as head of the Interior Department would prompt the White House to nominate someone as the assistant secretary for Indian affairs.

"We have to find someone," Domenici said, "and this may be the catalyst to get this done. It's very important that we find somebody."

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), the ranking member on the committee, also called attention to the lack of a BIA nominee. He said the vacancy was symptomatic of a much larger leadership problem facing Kempthorne upon confirmation.

"In fact, as I read the organization chart of the Department of the Interior, nearly half of the senior policy positions are vacant, or have acting people in those positions," Bingaman said.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said it was crucial to appoint a Native American to run the BIA. The agency's top two positions are currently held by non-Indians who had little experience with tribal matters prior to joining the Bush administration.

"I hope we can move quickly," Dorgan told Kempthorne. "There are just so many pressing issues -- a crisis in health care, housing and education on Indian reservations."

Kempthorne, now serving as governor of Idaho, told members of the committee that he was eager to build his leadership team once he is confirmed. He said President Bush wants him to play a strong role in selecting the new head of the BIA, as well as other top positions.

"I know that is important to the president ... and has indicated that he wishes to have my active comments with regards to those personnel," Kempthorne testified. "We're going to make it a priority so we can bring those people on."

The last head of the BIA was Dave Anderson, who resigned amid controversy in February 2005. Since then, the White House has interviewed more than 20 potential replacements, according to Jim Cason, the associate Interior deputy secretary who has been assigned all of the BIA's duties.

Domenici made the BIA post one of his top priorities when he advanced the candidacy of John Gonzales, a Pueblo leader from New Mexico and a former president of the National Congress of American Indians, within days of Anderson's departure. But the White House has kept quiet about its plans for more than 14 months.

"I think it's shameful," Domenici said yesterday.

In addition to raising the leadership issue, various members of the committee pressed Kempthorne to settle the Cobell trust fund lawsuit, resolve long-running tribal water rights disputes, address the needs of Alaska Natives and extend the policy of self-determination to Native Hawaiians.

Kempthorne didn't offer any specific proposals on those issues, but he indicated a willingness to listen and work with others as head of the Interior Department. His spirit of cooperation earned the endorsement of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe of Idaho, whose chairman, Chief J. Allan, attended the hearing yesterday to show support.

Committee members on both sides of the aisle a welcomed the chance to work with Kempthorne. Several of them, including Dorgan and fellow Democrat Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, said they were going to support his nomination.

The warm reception stood in contrast to the one received by Gale Norton, who resigned as Interior Secretary at the end of March. Her confirmation battle back in January 2001 was the most bitter in the history of the department as she struggled to win over Democrats.

Kempthorne, on the other hand, is assured a quick and speedy confirmation, largely due to his record as a compromise-builder but also to his political connections. He served in the Senate for one term in the 1990s, and he maintains close friendships with many in the chamber, Democrats and Republicans alike.

Domenici pledged to call a committee vote next Wednesday and to bring the nomination to the Senate floor as soon as possible. That would help speed along the possible selection of a BIA nominee, although the White House might act to fill other positions at the department first.

White House Announcement:
President Bush Nominates Dirk Kempthorne as Interior Secretary (March 16, 2006)

Relevant Links:
Coeur d'Alene Tribe -
Nez Perce Tribe -
Shoshone-Bannock Tribes -
Gov. Dirk Kempthorne -