Economy

Commerce nominee Locke sails through confirmation hearing

Washington Governor Gary Locke speaks at a press conference on March 1, 2001.
Washington Governor Gary Locke speaks at a press conference on March 1, 2001. Karl Mondon / Contra Costa Times / MCT

WASHINGTON — Former Washington Gov. Gary Locke appeared headed for easy confirmation as commerce secretary after sailing through a Senate hearing Wednesday.

Locke sought to quell Republican concerns that the administration wants to politicize the 2010 census by having the director of the Census Bureau report to top White House officials rather than the commerce secretary. Locke made it clear that he'd be in charge, and he ruled out using "statistical sampling" to ensure that minorities won't be undercounted. He warned that planning for the census was behind schedule, however.

He also fielded a barrage of questions and comments about digital television, broadband computer connections and everything else from Alaska's Denali Commission to the $40 billion contact for Air Force refueling tankers to weather modification.

Locke was President Barack Obama's third choice for the post. The other two, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, withdrew. If confirmed, Locke would be the first Cabinet secretary from Washington state since the Carter administration in the 1970s.

Locke was nominated only three weeks ago. Compared with other Obama nominations, his has moved quickly.

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said his panel could vote on the nomination as early as Thursday, if Locke were able to answer written questions from the members.

None of the Republicans on the committee indicated that they'd vote against Locke, and many said they'd support him.

Rockefeller said that he and Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the panel's top Republican, had reviewed Locke's background check by the FBI and his financial statements.

"They were clean," Rockefeller said.

"Boring would be a better word," Hutchison said.

The toughest exchange came at the end of the two-hour hearing, when Hutchison pressed Locke about whether he'd lift a Bush-era rule that prohibited using the Endangered Species Act as a tool to limit greenhouse gas emissions and control global warming. A recently passed spending bill would allow the commerce and interior secretaries to withdraw the rule without following all the notification and public-comment period requirements, Hutchison said.

"That's a little outside my league," Locke said. "It's an area of which I have almost no knowledge."

Hutchison found Locke's response unacceptable and indicated that she'd ask him to answer written questions about the issue.

Many committee members asked whether the Commerce Department was ready for the switch from analog to digital television, which has been delayed until June. The department had been swamped with requests for government-provided coupons to help pay for converters for those who don't have cable or satellite.

Locke said that the department would have worked through a backlog of more than 4 million coupon requests by next week and would have a 10-day turnaround on arriving ones.

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