Senate votes ‘aye’ on Balash

Joe Balash is confirmed as an assistant secretary of the Interior Department. (Liz Ruskin)

The U.S. Senate Thursday confirmed Alaskan Joe Balash as assistant secretary of Interior for land and minerals management.

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Balash was Alaska’s commissioner of Natural Resources, then became chief of staff for Sen. Dan Sullivan. Both of Alaska’s senators say he’s well qualified for the job, which puts him in charge of the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and other offices.

But there was dissent. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., pointed out that Balash pressed Alaska’s failed claim to 20,000 acres on the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Cantwell argued that if Balash has the Interior job, he’ll be able to act as judge on his old case.

“That claim that was turned down, he could reverse that,” Cantwell said.

When asked about recusals at his confirmation hearing, Balash said he would consult with the department’s ethics officer and comply with the rules. Cantwell says the rules are too lax.

Sullivan says Balash’s experience is an asset.

“When you have someone who has worked on land issues in a state, the idea of making yourself be recused because you have expertise and policy from your state job when you go into a federal job, to me, seems outrageous,” Sullivan said.

In the end, Balash won a bipartisan vote, 61-38.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, says he’s looking forward to Balash playing a critical role in coal country.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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