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Salazar hearing a lovefest among chums

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You might expect a confirmation hearing for a new Secretary of the Interior to be tough going, given the multiple scandals and vast challenges facing the agency after years of Bush administration bumbling and plundering. After all, the Department of the Interior manages a fifth of the land in the country, much of its strategic energy resources and natural wonders, a sizable hunk of offshore oil reserves, and much, much more.

You'd expect a lot of sticky questions about endangered species, energy policy, poverty on Indian reservations, and the heavyhanded attempts of the outgoing bunch to gut various protections for public lands and rare species in favor of widespread drilling.

You might expect all that -- but this is Ken Salazar we're talking about, the famously affable, centrist senator from Colorado. Wearing a bolo tie and flag pin (but no cowboy hat), he emerged from the three-hour chat with his colleagues on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Thursday morning smiling and unscathed. No one laid a glove on him.

In fact, no one even tried.

That isn't Salazar's fault, of course. He can't help it if his fellow committee members were more interested in lobbing softballs at him than pressing for details. The group includes the just-elected, soon-to-be senior senator from Colorado, Mark Udall, who introduced him as "a fifth generation son of the West," and a lot of other Dems of similar leanings. But even the Republicans were surprisingly mild in their inquisition, asking some bland and open-ended questions about snowmobiling in Yellowstone and oil shale leases in between offering their own praises of the son of the West for his evenhanded approach to environmental issues.

"This is onto its way to being a full-fledged bouquet-tossing contest," quipped Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, one of the few to openly blast the DOI over its mishanding of endangered species issues. (For more on that nasty business, check out this recently released report from the DOI's own Inspector General.) And so it was.

For his part, Salazar proved to be well-briefed and unflappable. His experience as a rancher, water lawyer, head of Colorado's natural resources agency and state attorney general all provided more than enough context for his pledges to steer an even course, promote responsible energy development balanced with resource protection, and so on.

If only the job itself was going to be this easy. After the committee and the full Senate votes to confirm him -- a mere formality, it seems, at this point -- the new Secretary is going to have to find a way to restore integrity to an agency of 73,000 employees, many of them demoralized by bureaucrats and ideologues who have politicized land-use decisions, scorned scientific research and disgraced themselves with back-room bargains and self-dealing. (For links to our coverage of the DOI follies, see my previous blog, "Senator Salazar's day of reckoning.")

He'll have to figure out how to deliver on the new administration's quest for what Salazar calls the "moonshot" of energy independence without turning areas such as oil-shale-rich western Colorado into a national sacrifice area. He'll have to find money in a badly depleted treasury to address a multi-billion-dollar backlog of decaying park infrastructure and run-down Indian schools. He'll have to come up with a plan to protect embattled wilderness without pissing off his snowmobiling chums from Wyoming.

The bouquets were coming fast and thick in the hearing room. We'll see how many get sent to the new Secretary after a few months in one of the hardest jobs in Washington.

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