Bush's Interior Secretary Nominee Faces Challenges From Democrats

Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's nomination for interior secretary could run into trouble from Senate Democrats who want to use it as a bargaining chip to stop more oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, or at least assure their states get a cut.

Ahead of Thursday's hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he would try to block Kempthorne unless Republicans back off their plan to open 3.6 million acres of the central Gulf to oil and gas drilling.

Nelson, citing the potential for environmental damage, said Wednesday he would "keep all my options open" for delaying the nomination. "I have nothing personally at all against Governor Kempthorne," Nelson said after meeting with Kempthorne, a former senator.

Energy production, gas prices and potential drilling in an Alaskan wildlife refuge also were expected to be covered at the hearing. Kempthorne said only that his meetings to seek the support of Nelson and other senators had gone well. "We're encouraged," he told reporters.

In March, the Senate committee voted 16-5 to authorize the Interior Department to begin selling oil and gas leases in the waters known as Area 181 within a year, with production expected to begin in about five years. No drilling would be allowed within 100 miles of Florida's coast.

Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., objected when the proposal was before the committee, saying the bill failed to protect his state's coast from environmental damage. He was expected to question Kempthorne about the bill.

The committee plans to vote in a few weeks on whether to send Kempthorne's nomination to the full Senate for a confirmation vote. The committee chairman is Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., lead sponsor of the drilling bill.

Nelson said he and other senators plan to use a parliamentary procedure to stall the nomination. The 100-member Senate can break the delaying tactic with 60 votes.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., also has threatened to use the maneuver if Kempthorne and the Bush administration are unwilling to let states share in federal proceeds from oil and gas leasing on the outer continental shelf.