WASHINGTON -- The Senate Agriculture Committee endorsed the nomination of James Cason to one of the government's top environmental posts Thursday, moving the controversy over his Reagan administration record closer to a showdown.
Opponents of Cason said the battle over his 'pro-exploitation' stand on the use of public lands would continue on the Senate floor. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., threatened to hold up action on President Bush's nominee over questions 'as to whether the public trust was betrayed' by Cason.
Cason, 35, was a high-ranking official in the Interior Department for most of the Reagan administration.
Committee members voted 12-7 to recommend Cason be confirmed as assistant agriculture secretary for natural resources and the environment. In that job, he would oversee the 191 million-acre National Forest system and the Soil Conservation Service.
Critics have accused Cason of using his influence to oppose federal protection of the spotted owl, of allowing valuable oil shale land to be sold for a pittance, and of changing Interior Department rules -- after the industry complained -- for checking if oil and gas royalties were fully paid.
Cason said his motives had been misinterpreted and that he tried in every instance to act fairly.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said Cason showed a new maturity during his appearance before the panel, but Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., called the testimony 'probably a convenient conversion.'
Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Cason had 'tried to shed his record, claiming he was ... merely following orders of higher-ups.'
Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter wrote to several committee members on the eve of the vote restating his support of Cason and assuring them 'he will take his policy guidance from me.'
Two Democrats who voted for Cason, Sens. David Pryor of Arkansas and David Boren of Oklahoma, said they might vote differently on the floor. They cited the oil shale sale and the royalty audit issues as matters that needed review.
Cason has been the only Bush administration nominee for the Agriculture Department to attract controversy.
Conservation and environmental groups argued Cason would be a poor steward of the land, while resource industry groups have supported him, saying he would balance conservation with the nation's need for timber, food and energy.
The son of an itinerant farm family, Cason was hired as a special assistant to the director of the Bureau of Land Management in 1982, held several other Interior Department posts and became acting assistant secretary last February.