Whitman, Norton Confirmed by Senate
Updated 5:51 PM ET January 30, 2001

By JOHN HEILPRIN, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman and former Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton won Senate approval Tuesday to direct the nation's environmental and natural resources policies.

The Senate voted unanimously 99-0 to confirm Whitman as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency after voting 75-24 minutes earlier, along partisan and geographical lines, to accept President Bush's choice of Norton to be secretary of the interior.

Most of those opposing Norton, 46, were Senate Democrats from Eastern states. Her most vocal support came from Senate Republicans in Western states with a large percentage of federal-owned lands. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who backed both women, missed the votes due to weather-related travel problems.

The votes left all of Bush's Cabinet seats but one - that of attorney general - filled just 10 days after his inauguration.

Whitman, 54, a two-term Republican governor popular with lawmakers, will resign her post one year shy of completing her second and final term.

"It's an honor," Whitman said of her new job at EPA. "There are hard decisions to be made with this agency, and you can't make everybody happy."

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's panel on forests and public lands, said the Bush administration is going to make important policy shifts on the environment.

"What you're going to see this administration say is that environmental policy will become a rule of law again and a rule of process and procedure with credibility," Craig said in an interview.

At her confirmation hearing, Whitman promised "a strong federal role" on environmental protection but said she will review several regulations issued in the last month of the Clinton presidency, including expensive new diesel standards.

Norton, a past advocate of state's and property rights, encountered more opposition in becoming the government's chief steward for half a billion acres of federal land and natural resources as secretary of the interior.

Republicans said they were confident Norton could balance preserving and developing those resources.

"She grew up in Colorado, she understands what wilderness means," said Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H.

Democrats said they only hope that Norton, a protege of Reagan-era Interior Secretary James Watt, doesn't live up to their worst fears.

"I hope she listens to this and proves me wrong," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who voted against the nomination. "She's out of the mainstream of thought."

Some issued dire warnings.

"I believe that the record of this administration will amount to a rather direct assault on environmental protection," said Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., who also voted against Norton.

Environmentalists lobbied intensely against Norton out of concern she would favor oil exploration and development ahead of protection of public lands.

"We're quite disappointed," said Tiernan Sittenfeld, the conservation advocate for U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which did not oppose Whitman but lobbied against Norton. "We're concerned that throughout her 20-year career she has represented polluters and special interests, not our natural heritage."

After senators from both parties - in a chamber split 50-50 along party lines - said they would support Norton's nomination, environmentalists lowered their sights and hoped merely for a substantial protest vote.

Sierra Club spokesman Allen Mattison noted that twice as many senators voted against Norton - 24 - as voted against Watt on Jan. 22, 1981.

"It says to me that people are going to be watching everything she does," he said. "We don't feel that the election gave Bush any mandate to plunder the public lands, and this further confirms that."

Despite lingering questions, Senate Democrats such as Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico said they were willing to give Norton the benefit of the doubt.

At her Senate confirmation hearing, Norton and her Republican allies backed away from many of her earlier and controversial stands such as arguing that the Endangered Species Act and the Surface Mining Act are unconstitutional.

"History warns us that it is right for us to be concerned," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said in comparing Norton to Watt. "We have witnessed confirmation conversions before." Kerry voted against her.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., disagreed. "I've listened to some of the detractors on the Senate floor," he said, "and I have to tell you that is not the Gale Norton I know."