How the rightwingers hold Interior hostages


Republicans in the U.S. Senate today stood up for a downtrodden victim -- the oil and gas industry. That's how they described it anyway. Really a lot more is at stake.

The superficial news: On behalf of their chosen industry, using classic Senate martial arts, the Republicans blocked the Obama administration's nominee for the Number Two job in the Interior Department.

Amid that noise, which is led by Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, the underlying character of today's Republican Party can be detected. It's more evidence of the tremendous leverage rightwingers have within the party, and how they exercise it in the Republican primaries, pressuring other Republican politicians to avoid any middle ground.

Interior's Number Two is a key for running much federal land and resources in the West. The Obamanites want a centrist environmentalist, David Hayes, to take the job ...

David Hayes is a former senior fellow of World Wildlife Fund and chairman of the board of American Rivers. He also held a high Interior job during the Clinton reign. At times he's been a lobbyist for some industries. He's part of an Obama pattern that includes at least 10 green-leaning (but not too green) people named to senior positions.

Utah's Sen. Bennett has led the rebellion against Hayes by putting a "hold" on Hayes and another Interior nominee. Bennett says he's protesting Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's cancellation of some controversial Utah oil and gas leases.

Yet until now, Bennett himself has been a centrist on environmental and other issues, as much as any recent Republican office-holder. Apparently now Bennett thinks he must satisfy rightwingers, to win the Republican primary when he runs for re-election next year. So he's shifted to align himself with the defenders of poor old oil and gas.

The Salt Lake Tribune -- the nonMormon newspaper in Bennett's back yard -- has editorialized:

(Bennett's) coercive hostage-taking, which puts pressure on Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to continue the wrongheaded policies of the Bush administration, is wrong. His promotion of oil and gas drilling everywhere in Utah, even on sensitive lands bordering national parks, is wrong.

So, too, is Bennett's desire to prolong the nation's dependence on fossil fuels instead of encouraging development of clean alternative energy that can bring long-term economic benefits to Utah and the West.

It is clear to us that Bennett, who is seen by many right-wing Utah Republicans as "liberal," is trying to convince them otherwise ahead of a tough primary challenge next year from Republican Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and perhaps others.

Bennett's transparent ploy plays well with oil and gas interests and with rural voters, but he is running against the tide of concern about climate change and the damaging effects of unregulated drilling and its impact on land, wildlife, water and recreation.

Give it up, senator. This cynical grandstanding is beneath you.

Tribune columnist Paul Rolly provides ample evidence of Bennett's past centrism, including:

Bennett's conservative credentials in Utah have been tarnished by his longtime role as a skilled bipartisan negotiator. He angered some of the more conservative elements of his party by securing millions of dollars in federal funding for Salt Lake City's light-rail system in advance of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

... As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Bennett has steered many more earmarks Utah's way and has stood up against conservative Republicans who have made abolition of federal earmarks a pillar of their platform.

He has been a key figure in securing agreements to move toxic uranium tailings away from the banks of the Colorado River in Moab, and he worked with Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, on a compromise with Democrats that guaranteed passage of their controversial Washington County lands bill.

Bennett is a co-sponsor, with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Washington, of a health-care reform bill that supporters see as a way to make affordable coverage available to more Americans while maintaining a private-sector system.

And he was one of the negotiators in the Senate that steered President Bush's $700 billion bailout of financial institutions through Congress. That effort raised the ire of Utah's conservative elite, who suddenly regained their animus toward deficit spending after eight years of slumber during the Bush years.

Now, for the first time in his Senate career, Bennett will face a formidable challenge from another conservative Republican -- most likely Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. So Bennett has pulled back the hand he had often extended across the Senate aisle.

Bennett's obfuscating might help swing the votes of delegates to the state GOP convention his way a year from now. But should his right-wing strategy gain him re-election, he may find that the bipartisan respect he has earned in three terms in the Senate has turned tepid.

Bennett has a right to feel scared of the rightwing, because Utah's rightwingers bumped off six-term Rep. Chris Cannon in the Republican primary last year. Cannon was only 85 or 90 percent rightwing, so they elected Jason Chaffetz instead -- a guy who is 110 percent rightwing (his campaign slogan was "Right for Utah").

The primary system works like that, and it's a problem for both parties: The extreme hardliners are so motivated, they turn out to vote in primaries, while moderate voters often don't bother to show up until the general elections -- and by that time, the hardliners have already determined the candidates for each party.

Bennett's primary race is just beginning to shape up, but already his rightwing challengers will include Tim Bridgewater, who was "a major fundraiser" for George W. Bush.

Too bad about Bennett's shift rightward, because his willingness to negotiate in the past seems to fit the nominee he's blocking. Nevada Democrat Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader who forced today's vote, trying to break the stalemate. said after he lost:

"Ask anyone who knows (the nominee, David Hayes), and they will tell you that among the many skills David Hayes brings to the table is his ability to work cooperatively and in a bipartisan fashion on the most complex issues," Reid said. "I wish our Republican colleagues would show the same spirit on at least the simple ones, like confirming such a clearly qualified candidate for such a critical job."

No doubt there are other Senate Republicans who think Hayes is OK ... but they're also gunshy of the rightwingers they would face in their primaries.

Another reason the rightwingers fight this round so fiercely: They're gearing up for the upcoming battles over Obama's call for raising taxes on the oil and gas industry.

I'll close with something that isn't specifically Western, other than the West still being part of the United States, for now. This strikes me as incredible: Dick Cheney, the super-rightwing Wyoming Republican who just finished eight years as vice president, announced on Sunday, he thinks Rush Limbaugh -- the hatemongering radio blowhard -- would be a good national leader.

Where are the Republican leaders disagreeing publicly with that? The Republican Party used to sound a lot more reasonable. And the party still has some reasonable leaders. They must begin to speak out against the Cheneys, the Limbaughs and the problematic primary system.

About Ray

Ray has been a Western journalist since 1979. He's now High Country News senior editor, based in Bozeman, Montana. He's earned national recognition including a George Polk Award for political reporting, a Sidney Hillman Foundation Journalism Award for investigating oil-field accidents, and an Investigative Reporters & Editors scroll for going undercover as a prison inmate. He's had three novels published.