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Nominee for interior secretary contradicts administration policy

WASHINGTON—President Bush's nominee for secretary of the interior contradicted administration policy Thursday when he told a Senate committee that he opposes selling public land to raise money for cutting federal budget deficits.

Bush's 2007 budget plan includes two proposals to sell up to 320,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management and national forest land to raise up to $1 billion over the next four years to help reduce the deficit.

"If it is strictly for deficit reduction I do not support it," Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "That's the position I will take into discussions if confirmed."

Kempthorne said he could support some sales of public lands when they were surrounded by private land or costly to manage. "I do not want to preclude the tool," he said.

Ten environmental groups sent a letter to the committee Thursday urging it to be tough on Kempthorne.

"Having reviewed Mr. Kempthorne's record as Idaho governor and as a former senator, we are concerned that he may continue to promote the unbalanced approach we have seen at the department under the Bush administration to date," the groups said.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, the ranking Democrat on the panel, noted that environmentalists have been critical for years about the Interior Department's "emphasis on commercial exploitation of resources, and not enough stewardship of the land and resources."

But Bingaman, like most committee Democrats, set his criticisms of the Bush administration apart from Kempthorne, whose nomination appears likely to be confirmed.

"I plan to support your nomination and look forward to working with you," Bingaman said.

The panel is to vote next Wednesday on whether to forward Kempthorne's confirmation to the full Senate.

Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., each have threatened to place a "hold" on Kempthorne's nomination because of concern about administration plans to open more land off Florida's Gulf Coast to exploration for oil and natural gas. A hold is a procedural blockage of debate that can be overturned only by the votes of 60 senators.

Both senators are working to reconcile their reservations and they aren't thought to be serious threats to Kempthorne's confirmation.

Under questioning from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Kempthorne pledged to recuse himself for 12 months from decisions on issues that he's dealt with as Idaho's governor. He didn't specify any, but issues affected could include endangered salmon, removing grizzly bears from the endangered species list and wolf management.

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(Barker reports for The Idaho Statesman.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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