By a vote of 87 to 11, the Senate approved Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) chief executive Sally Jewell on Wednesday as the next Interior secretary.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told his colleagues Wednesday that Jewell had demonstrated "the kind of leadership" that could reconcile the competing environmental and energy interests any Interior secretary must manage.
A former oil engineer and commercial banker who has spent several years at the helm of REI, the 56-year-old Jewell has never served in public office. But Wyden said she boasts the "professional track record of actually bringing people together on these sorts of issues."
While Republicans have frequently criticized the Obama administration's environmental policies — and the officials who have carried them out — Jewell won praise for her business background and openness to working with different constituencies.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the fact that Jewell has not "run the full gamut" of Interior Department issues in her career could be an asset.
"Perhaps that’s a good thing, because perhaps she is able to look through these issues with a fresh perspective, a different lens," said Murkowski, who initially held up the nomination because of the Interior Department's opposition to putting a road through Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.
For several years, Murkowski has sought the construction of a gravel road through the wilderness area to ensure that residents of the remote community of King Cove have reliable access to a neighboring all-weather airport for medical emergencies. As part of the agreement to move Jewell's nomination through, outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar agreed to send the department’s assistant secretary of Indian Affairs to hold additional meetings with King Cove residents in Alaska and prepare a report on “whether and to what extent the road is needed to meet medical emergency requirements of King Cove.”
"This wasn’t a parochial issue that I was raising here on the Senate floor," Murkowski said during Wednesday's floor debate, adding that when it came to Alaska residents, "For them, it was not just about a road — it was an issue of overreach, it was a symbol of federal overreach on far too many issues."
Jewell's two home state senators, Washington Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, said that the nominee's business experience and passion for the outdoors could help Interior navigate the fiscal and policy challenges that lie ahead.
"Sally’s going to come to the Interior Department at a difficult time for our country," Murray said. "Mr. President, I can think of no one better prepared for this task than Sally."
While some Republican senators, such as John Barrasso (Wyo.), remained opposed to Jewell and voted against her confirmation, none of them spoke against her during Wednesday's floor debate.