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Anonymous Republican blocks Tompkins’ Interior confirmation

WASHINGTON – The confirmation of Hilary Tompkins as Interior solicitor is being blocked by an anonymous Republican senator who has put a secret hold on the proceeding, a move that has frustrated Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.

Tompkins, a member of the Navajo Nation, was nominated for the position by President Obama in March.

On June 2, when Bingaman asked for a unanimous consent on the Senate floor to approve the nomination, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. objected on behalf of an unnamed colleague.

“We’ve not been able to get that nomination clear yet on this side, but we’ll be consulting with our Republican colleagues,” McConnell said.

Bingaman was not pleased.

“I’m obviously disappointed that there has been an objection raised to the confirmation of Ms. Tompkins. The solicitor of the Department of the Interior is one of the most important legal positions in our government.”

Slate Magazine explained the secret hold in September 2006 when Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Robert Bird, D-W. Va., admitted to having recently used the parliamentary tactic.

“What’s a secret hold? An anonymous objection that’s made before a bill hits the floor. The Byzantine rules of the Senate make it very easy for individual lawmakers to stall ongoing debates. Since anyone can slow down or halt the chamber’s business, the Senate must rely on collegiality to keep business moving forward. To that end, the Senate majority leader sets an agenda using ‘unanimous consent agreements’ on what will be discussed and for how long,” Slate wrote.

Bingaman praised Tompkins’ “demonstrated ability and stature in the field.”

Tompkins earned a law degree at Stanford University Law School in 1996. She served as a trial attorney in the environment and natural resources division of the Justice Department as a special assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn. She was an associate in the firm of Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry, one of the country’s leading Indian law firms.

Tompkins also served as chief counsel to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson where she managed a team of lawyers to oversee multiple agencies.

“In addition, Ms. Tompkins has a compelling personal story. She was born on the Navajo reservation and although she was raised in New Jersey, she has not lost touch with her Native Navajo heritage. If confirmed she will be the first Native American and only the second woman to hold the office of solicitor,” Bingaman told his senate colleagues.

“It’s unclear why anyone would object to confirming Ms. Tompkins,” Bingaman said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she was not responsible for the hold and didn’t know who had placed it.

In mid-May, Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, blocked Tompkins nomination and that of David Hayes for Interior’s deputy secretary over Interior secretary Ken Salazar’s decision to cancel 77 oil and gas leases in Utah that were awarded in the final months of the Bush administration and the issue of wilderness designations in the state.

Salazar canceled the leases because they were rushed through without adequate environmental review and consultation with the National Park Service, whose lands could have been adversely affected by drilling on thousands of acres adjacent to three national parks.

Bennett was miffed with Tompkins’ answers at her committee confirmation hearing in April to his questions about whether she would support a 2003 agreement by former Republican Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and former Interior Secretary Gale Norton that the Interior could not establish new wilderness study areas in Utah.

Bennett lifted his holds after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar confirmed in writing that the department currently has no authority to establish new wilderness study areas in the state. But he said the department could continue to protect wilderness areas through the land-use planning process. Hayes was confirmed May 20. Tompkins is the only remaining Interior nominee to be confirmed.

Bingaman said Tompkins was unfairly being held responsible for decisions over which “she has had no control and no responsibility. Many of the most pressing problems facing the Interior Department are legal problems.

“During its final weeks, the previous administration took a number of controversial actions in its rush to lock in (those oil and gas leases) before it left office. As a result, several of those actions have been overturned in the courts, and Sec. Salazar, who has inherited this legacy, is doing his best to address the problems. But he needs a solicitor. More than four months into the new administration, the department should not be without its top legal adviser. Ms. Tompkins should not be the victim of anonymous holds.”