Clinton Taps Transportation Chief for Top DOE Job

Washington--In a surprise move, President Bill Clinton today named outgoing Transportation Secretary Federico Peña to lead the Department of Energy (DOE) in his next Administration. Peña beat out a California university chancellor and the chief of an energy regulatory body.

DOE officials and congressional sources say they are unsure what to expect from Peña. "He's a blank slate," says one DOE manager. Peña has had little traffic with energy issues, save in his dealings with DOE's Rocky Flats facility and with the oil and gas industry during the 1980s as a Colorado legislator and Denver's mayor. But two political attributes--he's a known quantity in Washington and a Hispanic--made him the president's last-minute choice for the job. "It was obviously a political choice," says one congressional staffer.

Peña has spent the last three-and-a-half years leading a department with more than 100,000 employees and an annual budget of $36 billion--twice that of DOE. Compared with other Cabinet members, including departing DOE Secretary Hazel O'Leary, Peña kept a low profile and made only modest changes to the organization, congressional staffers familiar with his record say. He chopped the staff by about 10%, pressed for greater use of advanced technology in road construction, and emphasized transportation safety. "He did a pretty effective job," says one Senate staffer, but critics complained about the slow pace of change. Peña also drew flak for his handling of airline disasters.

Clinton said at a White House briefing that he expects Peña to continue O'Leary's efforts to streamline DOE, which the president characterized as a "diverse and sprawling operation." The nominee did not discuss any changes he might make at the department, but one of his first tasks may be to discuss the major DOE restructuring that Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) will propose in January (Science, 13 December, p. 1831).

Because he has already been confirmed for a Cabinet post, Peña should not encounter great difficulty in the Senate. But Senator Frank Murkowski (R-AK), who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee responsible for the confirmation, warned yesterday that the job demands someone "with the proper professional background and a stiff backbone." It's unclear how Peña will rate with Murkowski.

Elizabeth Moler, who chairs the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, was the front-runner for the job until just hours before the president's announcement. Administration officials say that disgruntlement among Hispanic groups who feared losing two Cabinet seats--the other loss being Henry Cisneros at the Department of Housing and Urban Development--was one factor in Clinton's reversal. Clinton also considered Chang-Lin Tien, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. Fourteen California lawmakers urged the president in a 10 December letter to choose Tien for the post, citing his academic credentials as a highly regarded mechanical engineer and experienced administrator.

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