Senate finally ready to consider nomination of Ryan Zinke as Interior Secretary

Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Montana) is seen on Capitol Hill in January 2017. Photo: Congressman Ryan Zinke

It's taken longer than anticipated but Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Montana) is finally on his way to becoming the new leader of the Interior Department.

Zinke, an adopted member of the Fort Peck Tribes, was nominated as Secretary of the Interior on December 14, 2016. His confirmation hearing took place on January 17 and he earned bipartisan praise for his approach to tribal issues.

But even though he won a committee vote at the end of January, the Senate hasn't gotten around to his nomination amid partisan bickering about President Donald Trump and his other Cabinet picks. The situation changes next Monday, when lawmakers will finally start considering Zinke in the evening, according to the Democratic schedule.

During his time in Congress, Zinke has sponsored pro-tribal bills on federal recognition, energy development and self-determination. And should he be confirmed at Interior, one of his closest colleagues on Capitol Hill is telling Indian Country to prepare for major changes in the department's organization and structure..

"We are not going to do business the way we've been doing business," Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, said at the winter meeting of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., last Wednesday.

“Look at it as an opportunity to move Indian Country forward," Mullin said of the discussions he's had with Zinke regarding a reorganization that could affect the BIA. "Stay tuned on that."

Zinke is among the last few remaining heads of department that have yet to be confirmed. It's unusual for an Interior Secretary to wait so long -- by this time in their first terms, Barack Obama and George W. Bush had their Interior picks in office.

Both Obama and Bush were also well on their way to nominating someone to serve as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs but it's not clear when Trump will get around to choosing someone. Speculation continues about potential picks but none appear to be gaining solid ground or favor in Washington.

For now, Mike Black, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who is a longtime employee of the BIA, is serving as acting Assistant Secretary. He told NCAI last Tuesday that he's working to ensure land-into-trust applications, tribal consultations and other activities keep "moving" as he keep the new administration "up to speed."

"I'm really encouraged and optimistic for Secretary Zinke to get on board," Black said of Trump's designee. "The messaging that I've received to date is that he is going to take a real strong interest in Indian Country."

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