Nominations on Hold For 2 Top Science Posts — Physicist, Marine Biologist Confirmations Halted by N.J. Senator in Unrelated Fight

The delayed votes on John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco have alarmed scientific experts who strongly back the two academics.
The delayed votes on John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco have alarmed scientific experts who strongly back the two academics. (Keith Srakocic - AP)
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By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The nominations of two of President Obama's top science advisers have stalled in the Senate, according to several sources, posing a challenge to the administration as it seeks to frame new policies on climate change and other environmental issues.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) has placed a "hold" that blocks votes on confirming Harvard University physicist John Holdren, who is in line to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Oregon State University marine biologist Jane Lubchenco, Obama's nominee to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. According to sources who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to discuss the matter, Menendez is using the holds as leverage to get Senate leaders' attention for a matter related to Cuba rather than questioning the nominees' credentials.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), said of Menendez's objections, "We will work to try to address any concerns that he may have."

The delay -- which could end quickly if Menendez dropped his objection or Senate leaders pushed for a floor vote that would require 60 votes to pass -- has alarmed environmentalists and scientific experts who strongly back Holdren and Lubchenco.

"Climate change damages our oceans more every day we fail to act," said Michael Hirshfield, chief scientist for the advocacy group Oceana. "We need these two supremely qualified individuals on the job yesterday."

Stanford University professor Stephen H. Schneider said it was critical that Holdren take office as soon as possible, because "I know no others who bring the triple-play capability of John on security, energy and environment."

Menendez spokesman Afshin Mohamadi declined to comment on the matter, writing in an e-mail, "It is our office's policy not to speculate or comment on anonymous holds or rumors of anonymous holds, across the board."

The delay comes as a slew of international officials are coming to Washington this week to meet with administration officials and members of Congress about addressing global warming. The lineup of foreign dignitaries includes Edward Miliband, Britain's secretary of state for energy and climate change; Connie Hedegaard, Denmark's minister for climate and energy; Jim Prentice, Canada's environment minister; Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, who is managing negotiations for a new treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions; and former British prime minister Tony Blair.

Holdren and Lubchenco had a relatively friendly hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Feb. 12, and an administration official said yesterday that he anticipated the nominations would make it to a floor vote. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) challenged several dire environmental predictions Holdren made a few decades ago, but the senator did not block the Senate panel from endorsing his nomination last month.

Spokesman Jamie Smith said committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) is urging swift confirmation of Holdren and Lubchenco because "there is much work to be done and no time to waste."

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