Former Texas Comptroller Susan Combs has hit yet another roadblock on the way to a U.S. Senate vote for a top position at the Interior Department.
Her expected confirmation to be assistant secretary for policy, management and budget was already delayed by a logjam involving GOP senators over Environmental Protection Agency nominees. Previously, her approval by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee had been held up by a separate dispute involving Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke over failed GOP efforts to repeal the health care law.
Now a new hurdle has come up involving Democratic senators.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has put a “hold” on Combs and another Interior Department nominee — blocking them from getting a Senate vote — until he gets “clarification” of the agency’s plans to re-designate environmentally sensitive public lands known as national monuments.
Combs, who also served eight years as Texas agriculture commissioner, was nominated in July by President Donald Trump and was confirmed by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in early August.
The hold is a parliamentary prerogative to keep a bill from reaching the Senate floor. The procedure for years was kept secret until a decade ago when Senate leaders moved to make the identity of the senator placing the hold public within a few days of it being placed.
Texas senators’ holds
Now, it has become a regular part of doing business — and both Texas GOP U.S. senators currently have their own holds on Trump administration nominees.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the Senate majority whip, told Texas reporters that he has a hold on a nominee to be deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget in order to “start a conversation” with the administration about boosting Hurricane Harvey disaster relief funding.
Cornyn said he would lift the hold if the administration’s supplemental request for disaster funding was adequate. But Friday, when the administration released a $44 billion request for disaster funding for Puerto Rico, Florida, California and Texas, Cornyn called it “wholly inadequate.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has placed a hold on an Agriculture Department nominee because he and other lawmakers from oil-rich states are demanding to meet with Trump over the Renewable Fuel Standard that lays out the amount of renewable fuels, such as corn-based ethanol, that must be part of the U.S. fuel supply. Energy state lawmakers say they are looking out for jobs in the oil and gas industry.
“Accordingly, I have placed a hold on the nomination of Bill Northey to be the Undersecretary of Farm Production and Conservation until and unless we secure the aforementioned meeting where we can bring diverse interests together to try to find meaningful short-term solutions while setting the stage for longer-term policy certainty,” said Cruz in a Nov. 14 letter to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Northey is Iowa’s secretary of agriculture.
National monuments fight
Combs finds herself in a similar predicament. Durbin and other Senate Democrats are disturbed at Zinke’s plans to modify the existing public land monuments that have been designated over the last 20 years and which are protected from development. Some are in areas with extractable resources like coal, oil and gas.
There are over 20 monuments on the list, including one in Texas, the Waco Mammoth National Monument, but that one is not expected to be affected, say environmentalists, who point to sites in Utah as the administration’s top targets.
This week, Zinke met with Durbin over what the senator said was a lack of transparency in the process after Zinke fired off a letter to the Illinois senator complaining that four of the nominees to his department were being held “hostage.”
After the meeting, Durbin said he was concerned about plans to shrink Bears Ears National Monument in Utah by approximately 80 percent. “Today, I renewed my call for the secretary to have a more transparent process, including releasing maps of the proposed changes,” he said.
Durbin lifted holds on two of the four nominees, but not the one on Combs.
Natural Resources Defense Council senior advocate Kabir Green said, “This fight is over the future of our public lands.” He said his group was stunned that the president might dismantle some of the monuments — Trump is scheduled to visit Utah in early December and the announcement might come then. But environmental groups are ready: “We like our chances in court,” said Green.