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FYI Number 7: January 22, 2001

Hearing for Energy Secretary-Designate Abraham Goes Well

Yesterday's confirmation hearing for former Senator Spencer Abraham (R-MI) to be the next Secretary of Energy took about three and one-half hours. After a lunch hour break, the senators unanimously voted to send his nomination to the Senate floor. Confirmation should occur in the very near future.

This hearing came the day after California experienced its first blackouts, in a winter marked by soaring natural gas heating bills. Many of the senators' comments focused on what was repeatedly called an energy crisis, with entreaties that Abraham fashion an energy policy. There was some discussion about the department's responsibility in the development and production of nuclear weapons, with fewer minutes devoted to DOE's science and technology mission.

Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) chaired this hearing. He began by discussing DOE's science and technology prowess, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the complexity of the problems facing Abraham. Senator Frank Murkowski (R-AK), who will resume his chairmanship this weekend, used most of his opening statement to describe the energy situation. In passing, he cited the national laboratories, and spoke of Abraham's support for the Department of Energy's Office of Science.

Murkowski's comment about the Office of Science referred to Abraham's support of various efforts last year to increase S&T funding. Abraham signed letters advocating substantial increases in the DOE Office of Science and NSF budgets. He was also a cosponsor of the bill to establish a National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. Abraham represented Michigan in the Senate from 1994 until his defeat last fall. He describes himself as a "tight-fisted fiscal conservative and a proven tax cutter who has bucked the Washington Establishment and made a difference." Among the legislation which he sponsored were bills to double S&T spending, to permanently extend the R&D tax credit, and to abolish the department he has now been selected to head.

"I no longer support this legislation" Abraham told the committee in his opening statement about the bill to eliminate the Department of Energy. Among the reasons for his change of position were the nation's energy problem and the establishment of the NNSA. Abraham described DOE's four missions, saying that its national security role was "paramount." Laboratory security would be a "very high priority of mine," Abraham said, adding that lab employees should be "treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve."

Regarding DOE's science mission, Abraham characterized the labs as "national treasures," and called for more partnerships with industry and universities to improve the nation's economic competitiveness. When asked by Bingaman if he would support a robust DOE science budget comparable to that of NSF and NIH, Abraham replied that he would continue to be an advocate for S&T, while balancing other funding needs. Bingaman also asked about the efficacy of extensive polygraphing of laboratory employees, Abraham saying that he will look at the results of a forthcoming National Academy of Sciences review of polygraphing. He spoke of balancing the public's desire for security, and the attraction and retention of the highest quality workforce.

Murkowski's questions centered on the energy situation. He told Abraham that while he did not expect him to have any solutions at the hearing, "you better have some answers after the 20th." Murkowski told Abraham that the nuclear waste disposal problem "has to be one of your highest priorities." Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) asked Abraham about global climate change, the secretary-designate saying that he wanted to break out of the single-minded debate about the problem and "look for new solutions" to reduce emissions.

Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) described the new polygraphing requirements as "borderline ludicrous." Abraham replied that he had already spoken to NNSA Director General John Gordon about the management of the labs, and added that he supports the NNSA's mandate. In reply to questions from other senators, Abraham indicated that he would not seek other uses for the Fast Flux Test Reactor, and viewed Russian non-proliferation efforts as a "high priority."

Both Democratic and Republican senators were supportive of Abraham's nomination to be the next Secretary of Energy. All acknowledged that, as one senator cautioned Abraham, "there's no question, you are stepping into a quagmire of problems."

Richard M. Jones
Public Information Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3095

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