Lobbyist-Turned-Senator Raises Eyebrows

Sen. Ken Salazar’s independent streak is about to be tested again, this time over a contentious judicial nomination.

Less than two months into office, the Colorado Democrat already has raised eyebrows among fellow Democrats by backing President Bush’s two most controversial Cabinet nominees and voting for a Republican version of class-action lawsuit reforms.

In coming weeks, GOP leaders hope Salazar will help them break a Democratic filibuster that has blocked a confirmation vote for former Interior Department Solicitor William Myers III to serve on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Myers, a former lobbyist for mining and grazing interests, faces fierce opposition from environmentalists. They accuse him of improperly intervening to help a rancher during a Wyoming grazing dispute in 2002, when he was the top lawyer at Interior. At a confirmation hearing last year, Myers denied playing a significant role in the case.

The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to take up stalled judicial nominations in March. Republicans are about five votes short of the 60 needed to break the Democratic filibuster on Myers. They hope Salazar will cross party lines because last year, as Colorado attorney general, he joined 14 other state attorneys general in signing a letter urging senators to confirm Myers.

The Jan. 30, 2004, letter said Myers showed “outstanding legal reasoning” in his work on issues involving endangered species, Indian affairs, federal lands and water, timber, and fish and wildlife.

But not so fast, Salazar said this week.

Now that he is a U.S. senator, he said he has broader responsibility to examine the nominee’s record.

“The perspective I had (at the time of the letter) was one that came from serving as attorney general and working with Bill on Western issues,” Salazar said Tuesday. “I now have a broader responsibility of voting up or down. I have to look at his record.”

Although he hasn’t decided what action to take on Myers, he opposes Republican proposals to do away with Senate filibuster rules and allow all judicial nominations to get up-or-down votes on the floor.

Salazar arrived in Washington promising to bridge the partisan divide, and he has co-sponsored bills regardless of whether they’re backed by Republicans or Democrats.

He caught some Colorado Democrats off-guard in January when one of his first official acts was to introduce former White House counsel Alberto Gonzales at a confirmation hearing to become U.S. attorney general.

Other Democrats attacked Gonzales, claiming his legal writings set the stage for torture and prison abuse in the war on terrorism.

Salazar also voted to confirm Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state. She was opposed by 12 Democrats and one independent.

Last week, he joined other Democrats in trying to amend legislation that would limit class-action lawsuits. When the amendments failed, Salazar joined a fellow Coloradan, Republican Sen. Wayne Allard, in voting for the final version of the GOP-backed bill, which critics called anti-consumer.

The early record has angered some die-hard Democrats, although longtime Colorado activists like Julia Hicks say they are not surprised.

“I just think he is a Democrat that has lost his way,” said Hicks, who backed Mike Miles in last year’s U.S. Senate primary and didn’t vote for anybody for Senate in the general election.

“People are so outraged. I look at them and say, ‘What part of stupid don’t you understand?’ ” said Hicks. “We said during the campaign that he has always been a conservative.”

Bill Vandenberg, co-director of the Colorado Progressive Coalition, said Salazar’s record so far has been a “mixed bag” for some of the people who helped Salazar defeat Republican Pete Coors last year.

(E-mail Michael Sprengelmeyer at SprengelmeyerT(at)shns.com.)