Obama's Pick for Interior
by Paul Quinlan
EPA Water Nominee Cruises
President Obama's pick to become the top conservationist at the Interior Department yesterday faced a raft of sharp questions about her past from Senate Republicans, signaling a bruising confirmation fight ahead.
Under questioning from GOP members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Rebecca Wodder, the nominee to become assistant secretary of the Interior for fish and wildlife, tried to distance herself on several occasions from statements made and positions taken during her 16-year tenure as president and CEO of the conservation group American Rivers.
"I had a job to do," Wodder told Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the committee's top Republican. "I recognize very clearly the job I've been nominated for is an entirely different job."
Wodder will likely win enough support from the Democrat-controlled committee before the August recess, although her confirmation by the full Senate is less certain, aides say.
Yesterday's hearing showed that Wodder made powerful enemies during her previous career. Inhofe's question centered on a statement Wodder made that was sharply critical of hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method of natural gas extraction that involves blasting water and chemicals deep underground to free gas trapped in rock formations.
"Unless we stop the threat of rampant shale fracking, the drinking water for 17 million people across the Northeast will be threatened by toxic pollution," Wodder had said. "We can't let natural gas companies fatten their profits by putting our precious clean water at risk."
Wodder went on to offer a more measured criticism of hydrofracking before noting that regulation of the practice would fall outside her jurisdiction, if confirmed. "The main thing we need to do is proceed carefully so that in developing that resource, we don't have unintended consequences on the clean water that we all depend upon," she said.
The committee yesterday also heard from Ken Kopocis, a longtime attorney and congressional committee aide tapped in June to head EPA's Office of Water. Compared to Wodder, Kopocis sailed through yesterday's hearing, facing almost no tough questions from Republicans.
Inhofe, for example, acknowledged that he had philosophical differences with Kopocis over the federal government's powers under the Clean Water Act but praised him for working well with committee Republicans and Democrats to pass a major water resources development bill in 2007.
"In fact, a lot of the times you were here, I couldn't remember if you were on my staff or her staff," Inhofe joked, referring to the Democratic committee staff of Chairwoman Barbara Boxer of California, on which Kopocis served from 2006 to 2008.
Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming brought the most pressure on Wodder, saying he was "disappointed" by some of her past statements. During Barrasso's questioning, an aide stood by lofting a placard printed with quotations the senator was critical of.
Among the quotes cited were ones in which Wodder describes herself as supportive of the call, outlined in a book by Bill McKibben titled Deep Economy, for "a new economic model based on sustainability." She said she "would like to get my food, power, etc. much more locally than I do now."
In another, she called herself a "huge fan" of the group Center for a New American Dream, which Barrasso characterized as anti-growth. In another quote, she said she eats almost no beef or pork "because of the amount of resources consumed in producing food via cattle or pigs, and because I object to factory farms."
Barrasso went on to note that McKibben's 2007 book is critical of the modern concept of growth which, he writes, "is producing more inequality than prosperity, more insecurity than progress" and "is no longer making us happy."
"The 9.2 percent of our country looking for employment, looking for someone to hire them, needs to know if the nominee is opposed to economic growth." Responding to Barrasso's critique, Wodder reiterated that she "had a job to do" as head of American Rivers, which she said was to "advocate."
"It was a fairly specific mission just for rivers and clean waters and I would just like to distinguish between the work I have done in the past and the work that I would do, should I be confirmed," she said. "I don't bring an agenda with me. I look forward to serving the conservation interests of the nation."
Asked whether her statement opposing factory farms was a personal or professional view, Wodder called it a "comment on behalf of American Rivers." Wodder offered a firmer defense when asked about her praise for McKibben's "new economic model," saying that healthy economy and ecology are complimentary.
"To have a strong, healthy economy, a thriving country, we need to have the natural resources that support that in a sustainable way," she said. "I certainly believe, as a mother, that I want this country to be strong into the future and have a healthy economy and a strong environment both."
But Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) raised another issue: American Rivers' legal challenges to levee-building in Arkansas, calling it a "grave concern." "We feel that the levees have done a pretty good job of flood control," Boozman said.
Wodder called levees "a critical part of the overall solution" to control flooding in addition to "nonstructural" approaches, meaning restoration of natural flood plains.
Dems reach out to support Wodder
Committee Democrats rose to Wodder's defense.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said it was wrong to judge her career based on a handful of endorsements and praised her efforts with American Rivers. He noted that Wodder was recognized in 2010 as one of the top 25 "outstanding conservationists" by Outdoor Life magazine and was named "Woman of the Year" by the American Sportfishing Association in 1998.
"I just want to complement her on her role," he said, his voice rising. "Yes, I do remember times when our rivers caught fire, and thanks to organizations like American Rivers we now have a healthy river system."
Boxer likewise criticized Republicans for equating Wodder's stated support for one idea in McKibben's book.
"I don't think we should go around here criticizing nominees who happen to agree with an idea in a book in which there were 100 ideas," she said.
Boxer reiterated her defense of Wodder at the end of the hearing.
"I apologize for some of the questions you were asked, frankly, because I think they were confusing your personal views with the role that you had," Boxer said. Boxer said her own priorities were very different when she was a stockbroker prior to becoming a senator.
"My whole goal was to make money for my clients," Boxer said. "It was very different."
Idaho Water Users Association Opposition to Nomination of Wodder
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