Senate Democrats, joined by a handful of Republicans and widely supported by environmentalists, sent President Bush's nomination of James Cason to head the U.S. Forest Service back to the White House and a quiet death Friday.
Two days after the Administration had put the matter at the top of the list of business that it wanted completed before congressional adjournment for the year, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) conceded that the nomination would be defeated, and he opted not to bring it to a vote.
Dole, saying that he could see "the handwriting on the wall," blamed the certain defeat on a campaign of distortion against the 35-year-old Interior Department official whom Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) had labeled a "James Watt clone."
Cason's nomination to be assistant secretary of agriculture overseeing the 191 million acres of national forests produced furious opposition in the environmental community.
Critics cited his actions as an Interior Department official during the Ronald Reagan Administration, when he was instrumental in the sale of thousands of acres of oil shale lands in Colorado for $2.50 an acre and when he was charged with suppressing a report that the spotted owl was likely to become an endangered species if logging continued in the Pacific Northwest.
"The Cason nomination fight is over," Leahy said after leaders decided not to put it to a vote Friday. "The Senate recognizes that James Cason is the wrong man for the wrong job at the wrong time."
Cason, the son of a migrant farm family, joined the Interior Department in 1982 after a successful career as a real estate developer.
He became a symbol of the struggle over natural resource policy when environmental groups, led by the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society and the Izaak Walton League, began an intense campaign against him last spring.
Last month, the Agriculture Committee finally approved the nomination by a vote of 12 to 7, but the opposition won the support of Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), the influential chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Eventually, several Republicans also announced their opposition to Cason.
When Dole refused to bring the nomination to a vote in the Senate on Thursday night, Leahy and Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) urged President Bush to withdraw the nomination and spare Cason and the White House the embarrassment of a defeat.
The President could simply name Cason as an interim appointee while Congress is in recess, allowing Cason to serve until the end of the 101st Congress in January, 1991. But Administration sources said that the President is expected to submit another nominee.
In attacking Cason, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) said that private interests who bought the oil shale lands sold under Cason's stewardship at the Interior Department quickly turned an 87,000% profit.
Testimony during Cason's hearings before the Agriculture Committee last month showed that one tract brought the government $42,000 and was shortly resold for $37 million. When the Bush Administration took office this year, Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. reversed the sale policy and declared a moratorium.
By permitting the sale of 17,000 acres of land to speculators, Leahy charged, Cason had "ignored his duty to protect public resources."
In addition to their criticism of Cason over the spotted owl report and the lease sales, critics charged that he had approved regulations proposing to open the way for more coal mining in national parks and wilderness areas and had changed Interior Department auditing policies, costing taxpayers millions of dollars in royalties from oil and gas companies.
Cason was the first presidential nominee to fail to win confirmation since the Senate refused to confirm former Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.) as defense secretary. It is a rarity for senators to reverse the vote of the responsible committee, as they were prepared to do in the Cason case.
Sierra Club political director Reid Wilson, who had been one of the leading lobbyists against the nomination, said that the opposition to Cason was in part attributable to a belief in the Senate that he "would return to the plundering policies of the Reagan era."
"The public sent a message that was loud and clear," Wilson said. "No Jim Watt clones allowed. The defeat of the Cason nomination is yet another signal of the growing political potency of the environment."