Combs’ D.C. job may be stalled by power play

Sources: De­lay a re­sult of be­hind-the-scenes threat tied to health law.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Maria Re­cio Amer­i­can-States­man spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent

For­mer Texas Comp­trol­ler Su­san Combs all but had her bags packed last week for a new top post in the U.S. In­te­rior Depart­ment.

Then, her path to Wash­ing­ton hit a speed bump.

Combs, nom­i­nated to be an as­sis­tant sec­re­tary at the In­te­rior Depart­ment, was up for a vote by the Se­nate En­ergy and Natural Re­sources Com­mit­tee last Thurs­day when the meet­ing was abruptly can­celed less than 24 hours be­fore it was to be held.

Lead­ing up to that post­pone­ment was a high-stakes bat­tle over health care.

The panel’s chair­woman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told re­porters that she had a “dif­fi­cult” con­ver­sa­tion with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump over a key pro­ce­dural vote on the GOP’s ef­forts to re­peal the health care law.

Murkowski, who was un­de­cided at the time, ended up being one of two GOP law­mak­ers who voted, “no,” and was sin­gled out in a tweet the next day from Trump: “Senator @lisamurkowski of the Great State of Alaska re­ally let the Repub­li­cans, and our coun­try, down yes­ter­day. Too bad!”

Then, a few hours later, Murkowski got a tele­phone call from

In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke.

Zinke, ac­cord­ing to the Alaska Dis­patch News, made calls to Murkowski and GOP Alaska Sen. Dan Sul­li­van last Wed­nes­day in which he threat­ened Alaskan in­ter­ests if Murkowski didn’t align with the Se­nate GOP on health care. The In­te­rior Depart­ment holds sig­nif­i­cant con­trol over pub­lic lands and oil and gas drilling in Alaska. (Sul­li­van’s vote wasn’t in ques­tion but the mes­sage ap­peared to be di­rected at the state.) Murkowski later told re­porters that the ex­change with Zinke was also “dif­fi­cult.”

(Murkowski ul­ti­mately would be one of three GOP sen­a­tors who, along with Democrats, scut­tled the lat­est GOP ef­fort to re­peal and re­place the Af­ford­able Care Act.)

But Murkowski, as chair­woman of the panel that over­sees the In­te­rior Depart­ment, as well as the sub­com­mit­tee that funds the depart­ment, has lever­age.

There was a meet­ing sched­uled for the next day to con­sider con­firm­ing Combs to be as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of in­te­rior for pol­icy, man­age­ment and bud­get, along with an­other In­te­rior Depart­ment nom­i­nee and four En­ergy Depart­ment nom­i­nees.

That af­ter­noon a terse news re­lease from the Se­nate Com­mit­tee on En­ergy and Natural Re­sources said, with­out ex­pla­na­tion, that the next morn­ing’s 9:30 a.m. meet­ing had been post­poned. It hasn’t been resched­uled.

Asked for an ex­pla­na­tion, com­mit­tee com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor Ni­cole Daigle told the Amer­i­can-States­man, “The busi­ness meet­ing was post­poned due to un­cer­tainty of the Se­nate sched­ule.”

Trump has com­plained re­peat­edly about the pace of Se­nate con­fir­ma­tions of his nom­i­nees, as has the GOP lead­er­ship, blam­ing de­lays on Democrats.

Murkowski de­nied that the post­pone­ment was pay­back and told CNN that there was a “blip” in the nom­i­na­tions and that it would be cleared up.

“These are im­por­tant peo­ple that need to get through,” she said.

But a Repub­li­can staffer fa­mil­iar with Murkowski told the States­man that the hear­ing can­cel­la­tion was a power move in re­sponse to threats against her state. “That was pretty clear,” said the staffer who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of the sen­si­tiv­ity of the is­sue. A Demo­cratic staffer who also re­quested anonymity said, “It seems pretty clear that the in­te­rior sec­re­tary threat­en­ing the chair­man did not end well for him.”

Combs didn’t draw any com­mit­tee op­po­si­tion, and she is widely ex­pected to be con­firmed. The only ques­tion is when Murkowski will resched­ule the vote.

At Combs’ con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing July 20, Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, touted her cre­den­tials as for­mer Texas agri­cul­ture com­mis­sioner and state comp­trol­ler for eight years, un­til 2015. “Her unique back­ground makes her the per­fect choice to help Sec­re­tary Zinke and his team man­age America’s vast natural and cultural re­sources,” Cornyn said.

More than 70 con­ser­va­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions, how­ever, sent a letter to the Se­nate En­ergy and Natural Re­sources Com­mit­tee last month op­pos­ing Combs for the po­si­tion.

As state comp­trol­ler, Combs clashed of­ten with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice, part of the In­te­rior Depart­ment, over re­stric­tions im­posed by the En­dan­gered Species Act, which she viewed as an im­ped­i­ment to the state’s busi­ness development.

There was a meet­ing sched­uled for the next day to con­sider con­firm­ing Combs to be as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of in­te­rior for pol­icy, man­age­ment and bud­get, along with an­other In­te­rior Depart­ment nom­i­nee and four En­ergy Depart­ment nom­i­nees.

Combs

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