Washington — Will the legacy of James Watt haunt Republicans in coming months? The answer to that question will begin to emerge this week, as a Senate panel starts hearings on the nomination of William Clark to succeed the controversial Mr. Watt as Interior secretary.
The last time Judge Clark faced a Senate confirmation hearing, he himself was the main issue. Nominated in 1981 to be deputy secretary of state, Clark under Senate questioning displayed a notable lack of foreitn-policy expertise. Critics grumbled that President Reagan had simply picked a crony for a sensitive position.
But Clark quickly proved a more-then-adept bureaucrat, eventually moving over the the National Security Council and outlasting his State Department boss, former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.
This time Clark's abilities won't be under fire, even though he has little environmental experience. Senate aides predict he'll have little trouble winning the approval of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Instead, administration critics hope to use the nomination hearings as a forum for examining the legacy of the man who was forced from the Interior job -- James Watt.
"We are looking for more than just a change in personality," said Sierra Club president Denny Shaffer at a press conference Monday.
For one thing, ciritcs plan to press for the ouster of the key aides Watt left behind. The Sierra Club Monday called for the resignation of five high-ranking Interior staff members, including Garrey Carruthers, assistant secretary for land and water resources; William Coldirion, chief solicitor; and Robert Burford, director of the Bureau of Land Management.
And, of course, critics of the Clark appointment say they'll try to draw attention away from Clark himself to the policies they want changed in coming months. In particular, environmentalists say they want Interior to roll back coal leasing and oil and gas drilling plans, reinstate 1.5 million acres of government-owned land dropped from review for possible "wilderness" designation, and increase funds for federal parkland acquisition.
But the administration hopes that without Watt to kick around, environmentalists won't be able to keep the political spotlight on the administration's Interior Department policies. And already Clark has moved skillfully to defuse some criticism.
The Interior secretary-designate has held a series of meetings with environmentalists during the last month, giving them no promise of change, but assuring them of access to his office. Groups such as the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society say that's not enough. But Jay Hair, executive vice-president of the National Wildlife Federation, largest of the environmental groups, says he is encouraged, and has refrained from criticizing Reagan about the appointment.
"To date we have remained neutral" in Clark's nomination, says Lani Sinclair, a National Wildlife public-affairs officer. "We're hopeful his new style will be translated into new faces and new policies."
And Clark's nomination hearings are unlikely to turn into a partisan shouting match. Some key Democrats on the Energy and Natural Resources panel -- such as Sen. J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, the ranking minority member -- aren't particularly disturbed by Reagan's choice of Clark for the Interior post. "The senator probably will have no problem" with Clark, says an aide.
That doesn't mean Clark will only get softball questions. Other Democrats, including Sens. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts and Howard M. Metzenbaum of Ohio, are unlikely to let pass an opportunity to hit the administration on an issue where it's politically vulnerable.
But with foreign-policy issues dominating the headlines, getting people fired up about the Interior Department may be more difficult without James Watt around.
Watt, as a symbol, has already disappeared from one forum. At the Wilderness Society's Halloween party last weekend, nobody camed dressed as the former Interior secretary. "We had a sheep," says a Society official. "No Watts."