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Senate panel opens confirmation hearings for commerce secretary

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A Senate panel Wednesday held the first confirmation hearing for a George W. Bush designate, as longtime Bush confidant Don Evans meet with the Senate Commerce Committee for the first in a series of hearings that will in all likelihood lead to his confirmation as secretary of commerce.

Don Evans  

Evans, the manager of Bush's presidential campaign, was tapped by the president-elect December 20 for the Commerce post, where, should he be confirmed, he will be charged with overseeing domestic commerce, international trade agreements, import and export levels, fisheries policy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Census Bureau and the National Weather Service.

"I am eager to take on the challenge," Evans said in his first official statement to the committee. "President-elect Bush has often observed that it is not government, but the entrepreneurial spirit of the American people, that creates wealth."

Still, Evans added, government must play a significant enough role to create a legal and regulatory atmosphere conducive to the proper, profitable application of private capital.

"If confirmed as secretary of Commerce, my mission will be to create a place where ideas and energy can thrive," Evans said.

Evans, whom Bush has described as a "lifelong friend," has been active in the former Texas governor's political endeavors since Bush first ran for public office in 1978, when he was defeated in a bid for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Evans, 54, also led Bush's fund-raising operation through the 2000 election cycle, spearheading a record-shattering drive that raised slightly more than $100 million -- a record sum.

A Texas native, Evans is the longtime chairman and CEO of Tom Brown Inc., a Midland-based oil and gas company. He received a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Texas in 1969 and an MBA from UT four years later.

Bush has praised Evans as a champion of free trade -- a precept that was a centerpiece of his presidential campaign.

Speaking before the Commerce Committee on Thursday, Evans said he would work as commerce secretary to tear down trade barriers and keep them down, while seeking to protect the interests of American workers and even import and export ratios between the United States and a number of key trading partners.

"My experience has taught me this: Our free enterprise system is unmatched in its ability to provide economic freedom and opportunity and hope for all of our citizens," Evans said.

"If confirmed as Commerce Secretary, I will dedicate the department's diverse resources to the common cause of fostering economic strength at home, and abroad," he promised.

Bush's designee found himself Thursday in the rarified air of a Senate controlled by Democrats, who realized the Senate majority only Wednesday and stand to lose it January 20 when Bush and Vice President-elect Dick Cheney are sworn in to their offices. The Senate is divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, with the vice president -- currently Al Gore -- breaking all ties involving legislation and Senate decisions.

Sen. Fritz Hollings  

Temporary panel Chairman Fritz Hollings, D-South Carolina, said as the hearing opened that regular Chairman John McCain, R-Arizona, will have to continue the confirmation proceedings after January 20 because Evans' Office of Government Ethics and FBI reports had not been completed.

Still, members of both parties praised themselves for getting Evans' hearings going at a comparatively early time.

McCain, though, turned out to be Evans' most sober and straightforward questioner Thursday. As Bush's campaign manager, Evans was instrumental in engineering the then governor's primary season defeat of McCain, who waged a presidential campaign regarded as somewhat rebellious by the highest echelons of the Republican Party.

McCain hinted he would press Evans on statistical sampling of census data, saying that though he had reservations about the process, head counts had missed significant people in his home state, "and the people of Arizona have suffered as a result."

Tradition at the Commerce Department, McCain continued, dictates that the department remain politically neutral, even while recent appointments to the secretary's post have been granted to people who have proved to be valuable fund-raisers for successful presidential campaigns.

Hollings, McCain
Sens. Fritz Hollings and John McCain  

Current Secretary Norman Mineta, designated by Bush for transportation secretary, and former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley have maintained that neutrality, McCain said. Evans, McCain gently warned, would have to be vigilant in seeing that the department remained free of political influence.

He later asked Evans to recount in detail, in writing, all of the civil litigation he engaged in as a corporate officer at a number of organizations.

Hollings added that one tough line of questioning for Evans would probably be reserved for that later point -- an interrogation of his views on the census. Republicans favor traditional head counts, while Democrats, who argue that headcounts miss too many people, would prefer statistical sampling method.

Committee members listed a series of divergent concerns they said they would have to take up with Evans as the new Commerce Department moves forward. Among those, Hollings said, is the trade relationship the U.S. shares with Mexico.

Incoming Mexican President Vicente Fox, Hollings said, wishes to repair and expand his country's infrastructure. He'll need help from the U.S. Commerce Department to do so, the Democrat said.

"They intend to rebuild their infrastructure. You've got have to free elections, labor rights, property rights, a respected judiciary. But they are going to need financial help," he said.

"We want to solve that immigration, solve that drug problem. You can take a lead in that."

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-North Dakota, talked at length about the U.S. trade deficit with Japan, China, Mexico and Canada, while Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, lamented the decline of the domestic steel industry.

"The wide range if interests and concerns expressed by many of you mirrors the diversity of the department itself," Evans said. "I intend to make the department work well for all Americans."


Thursday, January 4, 2001



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