Sen. Robert W. Kasten (R-Wis.) has blocked for more than three weeks the confirmation of economist Robert Ortner to become undersecretary of Commerce because he wants the Commerce Department to award a $1 million grant for a marina development project in his home state, congressional sources said.
Kasten's office would not comment on the hold that prevents the full Senate from considering the nomination of Ortner, now the department's chief economist. A spokesman said Kasten "has absolutely no problem with the nominee" but "has other concerns at this time vis-a-vis the Commerce Department."
The congressional sources said Kasten is holding up the nomination because Commerce's Economic Development Administration (EDA) has not approved a request for a $1 million grant to help develop a $21 million harbor, marina and park project along Lake Michigan in Racine, Wis. The sources also said Kasten and Commerce are negotiating over the grant and the amount of the request eventually may be reduced.
A Commerce Department spokesman acknowledged that there was a hold on Ortner's confirmation, but would not comment further. The department doesn't discuss the approval or disapproval of EDA proposals, the spokesman said. Ortner also had no comment.
Kasten voted in favor of Ortner's confirmation in the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which ordinarily would send it on to the full Senate for a vote. But sources said Kasten had the appointment held up temporarily by invoking informal congressional courtesy.
According to Robert Gibson, executive director of the Downtown Racine Development Corp., Kasten "has been pressing hard with the Commerce Department" to get the grant.
The project would transform an existing 110-acre commercial harbor into a recreational area, including a 950-boat county-owned marina and parking lot, a 16-acre county park and festival area. It also would make the now-choppy harbor more amenable to recreational boaters. Gibson said the project should create about 400 jobs.
So far, all but $1.5 million for the project has been approved by county, city or state authorities, Gibson said. "We're trying to squeeze $1 million out of EDA in Washington," he said. "Sen. Kasten and Rep. [Les] Aspin [D-Wis.] have been working hard for us down there."
The problem was that EDA wanted to see more concrete job creation information from the project, Gibson said. But the precise number of new jobs would be hard to quantify because many of them would come from employment such as additional waiters and waitresses in surrounding areas, he said.