Newly sworn-in Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., told reporters at his first press conference Friday that he resisted President Bush's offer of the job for three weeks and would have preferred to go home to New Mexico.
"I told the president-elect this job would be like being tossed into a sack of cats all clawing each other - a man was likely to get considerably clawed himself."The 10-term congressman retired from the House last year - he is 59 years old - and was looking forward to being at home in Albuquerque, which he described as one of the 10 best U.S. cities. Now he must face dealing with a sack full of environmentalist, water-user, mining, oil drilling, and park-using cats whose fur has been flying for a half-century.
While he was approved unanimously by the Senate Energy and Environment Committee and 99-0 by the Senate itself, his performance so far has made many the feline fighters uneasy. Western senators were bothered by his performance before the committee during which he failed to strongly support some of the same Western issues he faced while he was in Congress.
Lujan's repeated statements that as secretary he would have to go along with Bush administration policies led members of the committee to urge him to stand up to the White House for his department. Of a wide range of issues, senators hope Lujan will differ with the Office of Management and Budget, he has only promised to fight to overrule a Reagan budget proposal assigning some firefighting expenses on public lands to the states.
The Bush budget proposals are due out next Friday, and Lujan's clout may be measured by the fate of the firefighting budget.
Because some Westerners see Lujan as weak on issues they hold dear, there is more than the usual pressure to load the Interior Department with appointees who will be strong on particular Western problems.
Environmentalists were equally worried about Lujan's commitment to positions they favor. But those who apparently have the most clout with Bush are Western Republicans - Sen. Jim McClure, R-Idaho; Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah; Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska; Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.; plus Sen. Bennett Johnson, D-La., committee chairman and conservative Democrat.
Lujan's written responses to senators' questions did not answer many of the concerns either of environmentalists or those who want to see more development. He said in an answer to Garn that he supports completion of the Bonneville Unit of Central Utah Project, but only promised to "review" financing methods for the project.
He worried Westerners by promising likewise to "review" the 1872 Mining Act. Among the questions he raised concerned the meaning of "fair market value" for claims located on federal mineral lands.
He pleaded ignorance about paving the Burr Trail in Garfield County, one of Garn's favorite projects. He agreed that the United States has an obligation to the Ute Indians for water right claims, but only promised to discuss a bill that Garn and Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah, are drafting.
Lujan told reporters on Friday that he understands the White House wants to replace all political appointees. In the running for the key job as assistant secretary for water and science is Michael Rappoport, now chief lobbyist for the Salt River Project in Arizona.
Rappoport would probably not be the first choice of Utahns interested in having Arizona power customers help pay for costs of re-authorizing the CUP. As a public power official Rappoport was believed to be unhappy at the Utah plan last year.
One of the chief architects of that plan, Kenley Brunsdale, formerly of Utah Power and Light Co., and an outspoken foe of public power, is coming to Washington to become administrative assistant to Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah. As such, he will be involved in drafting a CUP bill that can pass Congress this session. Brunsdale's appointment will put Owens on the spot over CUP.
One of the names being pushed for a job in the department is Roland Robison, former Bureau of land Management director in Utah and now serving in Washington with BLM. Robison is a Western candidate to replace Robert Burford as BLM director, or Steven Griles as assistant secretary for land and minerals management.
Another name mentioned for solicitor of the department is David Ickes, a Salt Lake attorney. Both the lands post and the solicitor's job are key for Utah, where BLM wilderness selections promise to be a highly controversial issue in this Congress, and because legal rulings for the department make or break many questions surrounding land, water, mining and other state concerns.