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Alaskan Tara Sweeney’s Interior Department nomination cruises through committee

WASHINGTON — The Senate Indian Affairs Committee voted to advance the nomination of Alaskan Tara Sweeney to be assistant secretary for Indian Affairs on Wednesday.

Senators on the committee voted unanimously in favor of her nomination, by a voice vote. Her nomination will now face a vote of the full Senate.

Sweeney, who is currently vice president of external affairs at the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., is the first Alaska Native woman to be nominated to a position that requires Senate confirmation. She previously co-chaired the Alaska Federation of Natives, led the international Arctic Economic Council, and was Miss World Eskimo Indian Olympics, Miss Top of the World and Miss National Congress of American Indians.

"If anybody is up to this hard and difficult task (of aiding Indian Country), it is Tara Sweeney," Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said at the hearing. Murkowski touted more than 40 letters of support submitted on Sweeney's behalf, saying "there's virtually no opposition from Indian Country" to her nomination.

"Ms. Sweeney is a capable, proven leader and a powerful advocate for Native American self-determination and tribal sovereignty. Her extensive experience in business and policy development will serve her well in this complex role," Chairman John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in a statement.

At the hearing, Hoeven praised Sweeney (who was not present) for her willingness to recuse herself from issues related to the ASRC as part of her federal ethics agreement.

Ranking member Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., agreed, and cited Sweeney's testimony at a hearing in May and said she would recuse herself of anything related to ASRC, including drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. " 'It's the right thing to do,' that's her quote," Udall said. "I intend to hold her to it."

("I would have done that regardless of the (ethics) pledge, because it's the right thing to do," Sweeney said at the hearing.)

But Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., wasn't quite so sure. She said Sweeney submitted written responses to follow-up questions that "muddied the waters" regarding her plans to recuse herself, and whether she would ever seek a waiver. Cantwell said she would not hold up the nomination but planned to ask for clarification from Sweeney before the nomination went to the full Senate for a vote.

Getting Sweeney's nomination to a vote took months of wrangling by Alaska's congressional delegation, who faced troubles in clearing her with the White House because she is a shareholder of an Alaska Native corporation, and she will have oversight of Native issues in her role at the Interior Department.

Nominees are often asked to either dissolve or put into a blind trust assets that involve their area of government control. That is not an option for a shareholder in an Alaska Native corporation.

At her nomination hearing, Hoeven noted that ASRC is a $2.6 billion corporation with 12,000 employees and active work in six major business sectors.

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