Kempthorne has support in Senate, where he served from 1993-1998 (White House photo by Paul Morse)

Moving swiftly to fill an opening in his Cabinet, President Bush has picked Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R) to be secretary of the Interior. Kempthorne, whose selection was announced on March 16, earlier had served one term in the U.S. Senate, and appears to have strong support from his former fellow lawmakers for the Interior Dept. post. On the other hand, environmental groups are unhappy about Kempthorne's nomination.

If the Senate confirms Kempthorne, he would succeed Gale Norton as Interior's chief. Norton announced March 10 that she will leave the department at the end of the month, saying she wanted to work in the private sector and that she and her husband hoped to "end up closer to the mountains we love in the West."

For construction, Interior's most important agencies include the Bureau of Reclamation and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) said he "recommended Dirk Kempthorne highly to the White House." Domenici, whose panel will hold a confirmation hearing on Kempthorne, added, "Everything I know about him tells me he will be confirmed and make an excellent secretary."

The energy committee's top Democrat, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, also said he expected Kempthorne to be confirmed. Bingaman said the nominee "is well known and respected by those of us in the Senate who served with him."

Kempthorne was elected Idaho's governor in 1998 and reelected four years later. His current term expires next January. He was in the Senate from 1993 to 1999, and served on the Environment and Public Works Committee. In his Senate stint, Kempthorne may be best known to the construction industry for taking the lead in pushing for a measure dealing with safe drinking water, which was signed into law in 1996.

At the White House ceremony announcing his nomination, Kempthorne said that "one of the hallmarks of my public service has been my ability to bring people to the table and to work together to build consensus."

But environmentalists criticized Kempthorne, contending he opposes protecting public lands. Philip E. Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, claimed that Bush "could not have chosen a more divisive nominee."