Senate Approves Kempthorne as Interior Secretary

Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne won Senate approval as Interior secretary on Friday after confirmation proceedings that highlighted the administration's policy on offshore energy exploration.

Kempthorne, a former senator, was confirmed on a voice vote to succeed Gale Norton as the steward of one-fifth of the nation's land — including tourist magnets as diverse as Yellowstone National Park and the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa.

The confirmation of Kempthorne, 54, was never in doubt. He was challenged by two Democrats, however, one of whom, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, spoke briefly on the Senate floor to emphasize his opposition.

"Sen. Nelson promised Florida that he would not support an interior secretary who would advance President Bush's willingness to acquiesce to the oil lobby" by putting oil rigs off the Florida coast, said Dan McLaughlin, a spokesman for the lawmaker.

Administration policy calls for opening 3.6 million acres of the central Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling.

On the other hand, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., had earlier vowed to block confirmation in protest of the administration's refusal to share a portion of offshore oil and gas royalties with Gulf Coast states.

She relented after talks with Kempthorne, and said in remarks on the Senate floor after his confirmation that she was "pleased to cast my vote" for him.

The federal government does not share offshore energy royalties with states, but it does split royalties 50-50 with states for oil and gas development in the Rocky Mountain West.

Kempthorne, in a statement released by Landrieu's office, said he was "encouraged by discussions in the Senate regarding oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico, and hope they continue to be productive."

He said he had accepted Landrieu's invitation to make one of his first official trips a tour of Louisiana's wetlands. Landrieu said she hoped to improve hurricane protection, flood control and coastal restoration.

"I am pleased that he appears increasingly open to our needs," she said.