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Zinke takes hot seat at confirmation hearing

January 17, 2017 at 7:29 pm | By ANDY VIANO Daily Inter Lake


Zinke takes hot seat at confirmation hearing

United States Representative Ryan Zinke (Republican of Montana) testifies before the US Senate Committee on Energy and Commerce as it holds a hearing considering confirmation of his appointment to be US Secretary of the Interior on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Ron Sachs/CNP/Sipa USA/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Interior, disputed Trump’s belief that climate change is a “hoax” and forcefully reaffirmed his opposition to the sale of public lands during his confirmation hearing Tuesday in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The Whitefish Republican was received amicably, for the most part, by members of both parties during the hours-long hearing and was endorsed by both of Montana’s senators. Republican Steve Daines, a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Democrat Jon Tester introduced Zinke and advocated for the fellow Montanan.

Tester said Zinke was “well-equipped to hold this post with accountability,” while Daines called his fellow Republican “a strong supporter of conservationists, responsible natural resources development and increased recreation access on our public lands.” Daines later praised Zinke during his allotted time as a committee member, saying “I could not be a prouder Montanan,” noting that Zinke would be the first Montanan to ever serve in a Cabinet position, if confirmed.

The most highly charged moments of the hearing came during questioning from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who first asked Zinke if he believed the president-elect was correct in calling climate change a “hoax.”

“First of all, the climate is changing,” Zinke responded. “That’s undisputable. I’ve seen glaciers over the period of my life recede. When we ate lunch at Grinnell Glacier, the glaciers receded at lunch.

“The second point is man has had an influence. The climate is changing; man has had an influence. Where there is debate is what we can do about it.”

When pressed further by Sanders, the Whitefish High School graduate responded bluntly.

“I do not believe (climate change) is a hoax,” Zinke said.

Moments later, Sanders pivoted to the proposal to transfer federal public lands to states, an idea which some fear would result in states selling the land to private entities. Zinke has been staunchly opposed to federal land transfers, going as far as to resign as a delegate to the Republican National Convention last summer in opposition to the GOP’s pro-transfer stance.

When confronted by Sanders over his recent House vote in favor of a measure widely viewed as a precursor to the transfer of federal lands, Zinke again responded directly.

“I am absolutely against the transfer and sale of public land,” he said. “I can’t be any more clear.” Zinke has said the bill’s proposed pilot program for management of public lands is not the equivalent of a sale to the states.

Later in the hearing, under questioning from Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Zinke was pressed to explain that Jan. 3 vote and responded by downplaying its significance, saying “It has no weight unless it’s executed. I think it’s a shot across the bow that we have to do something.”

When asked if he would have supported that rule were it voted on by itself, instead of as part of broader legislation, Zinke answered “I would not.”

The congressman also championed sovereignty for Indian nations, supported water compacts — calling them “a treaty obligation” — and advocated for coal energy.

“The war on coal, I believe, is real,” Zinke said. “I think we should be smart on how we approach our energy. Coal is a great part of our energy mix.”

SEATED IN front of his wife, Lolita, and his daughter, Jennifer, and her family, Zinke delivered an opening statement that touched on his humble upbringing in Whitefish and stressed his affinity for President Teddy Roosevelt. He went on to describe his goals for the Department of the Interior, pledging to “restore trust” within the agency, address the estimated $12.5 billion backlog in needed maintenance and repairs for the country’s national parks, and give local agencies the tools and flexibility to make their own decisions.

The committee consists of several prominent senators, including Al Franken, D-Minn.; Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; Mike Lee, R-Utah; and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. Committee chairman Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., did not attend the hearing. Sessions is the Trump’s pick to serve as attorney general.

Zinke faced his most incendiary questions from a fellow military veteran, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. Duckworth blasted Zinke for not condemning Trump’s statements about a sexual assault in a leaked video last year and questioned whether Zinke would address reports of widespread sexual assault within the National Park Service.

“I take issues of sexual assault and harassment absolutely seriously,” Zinke said. “As you know, the tolerance is zero.”

IF THE Senate votes to confirm Zinke, he will have to vacate his House seat, triggering a statewide special election to replace him. Under state law, Gov. Steve Bullock must set an election date within 85 to 100 days of the vacancy.

Montana’s Democratic, Libertarian and Republican parties would each hold a nominating convention under their bylaws to select a candidate for the seat.

So far, Republicans who have expressed interest in the seat include state Sen. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls, Sen. Scott Sales of Bozeman and Rep. Daniel Zolnikov of Billings. State District Judge Russell Fagg of Billings had also indicated he may run, but decided against it earlier this month.

Among Democrats planning to pursue the seat are state Rep. Amanda Curtis of Butte, Rep. Kelly McCarthy of Billings and Whitefish musician Rob Quist, who has secured the endorsement of former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

Curtis previously ran for the U.S. Senate in 2014 after Democratic nominee John Walsh dropped out of the race, but lost to Daines.


Daily Inter Lake reporter Sam Wilson contributed to this story. Entertainment editor Andy Viano may be reached at (406) 758-4439 or