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Senate Approves Interior Secretary Nominee Gale Norton

Aired January 30, 2001 - 3:15 p.m. ET


JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Joie Chen at CNN Center. To our viewers who are waiting for TALKBACK LIVE, that's going to begin a little bit late this afternoon, as we have quite a bit of news coming to us from Washington at this hour. We're going to go out there in a moment. That's because the Senate at this hour is gathering to take up the vote on the nominations of Gale Norton as interior secretary and Christie Whitman as EPA administrator.

As you see, the senators are gathering there. They also had to break out of their judiciary committee meeting for their considering the controversial nomination of John Ashcroft for Mr. Bush's attorney general.

Standing by in Washington for us now is CNN's Bob Franken on Capitol Hill.

Bob, bring us up to date on the nomination process and what's going to be happening this afternoon.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we are waiting now for the result on the vote on Gale Norton, the result of her quest to be the interior secretary. Of course, she was quite controversial when she was first announced. Environmental groups called her an extremist against the environment. The clock has long run out on the Senate floor vote to, in fact, decide whether to confirm or not. The vote is going to be confirmation. The controversy was really sort of swept aside, particularly after she held her committee hearings where she was questioned very closely by Democrats.

But the general feeling among many of the people who did oppose her is that they had very serious problems with her policies but that she has the chance to show that she, in fact, will do a good job and protect the lands and all the other matters that come under the Department of Interior.

We're waiting for a result on that vote on the Senate floor. That'll be followed by another vote, which is expected to be, if not unanimous, almost unanimous approval of Christie Todd Whitman, who is the former governor of New Jersey, who is up to be the head of the Environmental Protection Association.

If you look, however, at the Senate Judiciary Committee's room, you will see that it is just about empty right now because the senators are on the floor. They are, in fact, making their votes. Then they will come back, and we're really going to get into the controversy that is left here on the Bush Cabinet, and that is the nomination of John Ashcroft to be the attorney general.

We are expecting the committee vote today, Joie, and there are several things to look for. First of all, there are two Democratic senators who could, in fact, switch. They could defect, both from Wisconsin. Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold are being courted by the Republicans to, in fact, switch their votes and give John Ashcroft the clear victory in the committee.

If, in fact, they stay with the Democrats, however, it would be a nine-to-nine vote, assuming that all Republicans were united and stay behind Ashcroft, which is considered a very safe bet. Even if it is a tie vote like that, under the new rules of this new Senate, Ashcroft's nomination would go to the Senate floor, could be taken up as early as tomorrow.

The other thing to look for is what exactly is the announcement from Senator Edward Kennedy. We are told by him that it is unlikely that he will follow up on his threat to filibuster the Ashcroft nomination. One good reason would be that the filibuster would probably not be successful to do anything but delay the ultimate confirmation. We are told now that he's going to announce in the committee room whether he will, in fact, give up his quest to have the filibuster -- Joie.

CHEN: All right, Bob, we are seeing -- our viewers are seeing the picture from the Senate floor. And the decision: the vote in favor of Gale Norton of the state of Colorado to be secretary of the interior. Here's Trent Lott. Can we hear him speak.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The senator is correct. The Senate will come to order. Will those having conversations either cease or remove themselves from the floor?

SEN. TRENT LOTT (R), MISSISSIPPI: Have the yea or nays been ordered on the second vote on nomination?


LOTT: I asked for the yeas and nays.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is there a sufficient second? There is a sufficient second.

LOTT: Mr. President, before we proceed, I would ask consent that following the time allocated immediately following the back-to-back vote...

CHEN: All right, to our viewers, what you're watching here is the Senate approving, as you see at the bottom of the screen there, the Senate approving the nomination of Gale Norton, a former Colorado attorney general, to be the interior secretary of the United States.

Gale Norton's nomination, though, as you said, Bob, was one that faced quite a bit of controversy. Nevertheless, it seemed to die very quietly when it actually got into committee. Why was that?

FRANKEN: Well, a couple of reasons. First of all, she came to these committee hearings, was quite well trained, and she really finessed a lot of the answers and assured many of the people who were borderline that she had very deep concerns about the environment, that she just had perhaps a different way to do some of these things. Environmental groups, of course, called her an extremist. But when everything was said and done, she was able to become so uncontroversial, at least in her presentation, that there was a political decision by many of the senators that they really needed to not be viewed as obstructionists. They needed to follow the mantra we hear so many times, that in fact, the Bush -- new President Bush has a right to his Cabinet -- Joie.

CHEN: Bob, and just a note here to our viewers. We're also standing by. We understand the Senate is going to take up the nomination of Christie Whitman as EPA administrator in the Bush administration.

But really, the controversy will be back at the Senate Judiciary Committee when the senators get done on the floor with these votes, they'll be back -- some of them will be back in the Judiciary Committee.

You were talking about that, Bob, before we heard the final decision on Gale Norton about the possibility that a nine-to-nine vote will be sent out of committee, and that will go to the floor. Is that significant? I mean, is that going to be a problem for the senators on the floor? After all, they're going to make a decision on their own, each senator, how they're going to vote, aren't they?

FRANKEN: Well, there's sort of a symbolism in the minds of some Democrats if, in fact, there is a deadlock in the committee if they were able to deny John Ashcroft committee approval. The Democrats would like to, they say, inhibit Ashcroft as he goes to the Justice Department. They believe that, in fact, he is somebody who is a danger to some of the laws. They've argued all along that the positions he took as a senator and at other points in his public life make him unqualified to be attorney general, who will have to administer laws that, in fact, he has publicly disagreed with.

But this controversy is now just over what kind of signal is sent from the judiciary committee. There's little doubt that when he gets to the Senate floor, he will be confirmed. And if Senator Edward Kennedy abandons his filibuster threat, he could very easily be confirmed before this week is over.

CHEN: All right, Bob Franken for us on Capitol Hill this afternoon. Again, to our viewers, we have just seen that Gale Norton has been approved by the Senate as interior secretary of the United States. Senators will then be taking up Christie Whitman's nomination as the EPA administrator. We're expecting that some time a little bit later in the afternoon.

And then the senators who are involved in the Judiciary Committee will go back to consider debate for John Ashcroft as the attorney general. Obviously, his has been the most controversial of the nominations. CNN is certainly closely following up on that discussion as it returns in the Senate Judiciary Committee this afternoon. We'll follow up on all those stories and bring you the latest details as we get them.



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