Salazar's Wolf Decision Upsets Administration Allies

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 14, 2009

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's decision to stick with a controversial Bush administration move that took gray wolves off the endangered species list in most of the northern Rockies reflects the independent streak that has defined his career. But it has alienated key Obama administration allies, including environmentalists and some lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Salazar's March 6 decision surprised environmental leaders as well as some of the administration's traditional opponents, and it provoked a protest letter from 10 senior House Democrats as well as a literal howl of delight from Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter (R).

While the White House declined to comment on Salazar's move, it has clearly caused a headache for the administration. Lawmakers have called senior Obama aides to question the decision, environmental groups have filed a Freedom of Information Act request to probe the decision-making process, and experts inside and outside the administration predict that the issue will end up in court.

If the episode highlighted the delicate path that Salazar, a former senator, is navigating in his new job, it also underscored the learning curve that Cabinet members -- especially those who came from politics -- face when joining another politician's administration.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former House member from Illinois, veered off message last month when he suggested that the administration might tax motorists for every mile they drive. The White House made clear that the idea was not under consideration.

And Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a former senator from New York, clarified the administration's commitment to human rights this week after stating earlier that such concerns "can't interfere" with issues on which the United States needs Chinese cooperation.

Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said Cabinet members often show flashes of independence during the early days of an administration, especially if they have served in the House or the Senate, "where they're used to making their own decisions and going ahead with them."

"It takes a while to get your sea legs on that front, especially if you're a member of Congress," Ornstein said.

The wolf proposal was published just weeks before Bush left office, then suspended under a broad directive by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said Salazar had followed the unanimous recommendation of Fish and Wildlife Service scientists in setting the new policy, rather than letting political factors influence him. "This was a decision based on science," she said.

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