Clark calmly snuffs out Senate 'fire' set by predecessor Watt

Upon his arrival, about halfway through the hearing, Sen. Wendell H. Ford sat down, pointed an accusing finger at the nominee for secretary of the interior, and said: ''I hear you're good at stonewalling. Is that true?''

William P. Clark did not react. In a monotone that seemed somehow reproachful , he replied to the Kentucky Democrat, ''That would be for others to judge, senator.''

Determinedly mild, nominee Clark disarmed critics at his Tuesday confirmation hearing. The session revealed the difficulties that Democrats and environmentalists may have keeping public attention on the Interior Department now that the fiery James G. Watt is gone.

Senators on the Energy and Natural Resources panel opposed to administration policy did not attack Clark with the enthusiasm which with they used to pillory Mr. Watt. For the most part, they left early, clearly frustrated with Clark's vague answers.

Clark refused to disclose his personal views on such controversial Interior Department matters as the leasing of federal land for coal mining, the parkland acquisition budget, and offshore oil and gas drilling. He would say only that all Interior Department policy, personnel, and processes were being looked at, per order of President Reagan.

''I am making no announcement on changes in policy other than to say I will review all policy,'' he said.

Clark also declined to compare himself with his predecessor, saying, ''I will not sit here and suggest I will have greater or lesser environmental concern.'' But Clark's answers to senatorial questions did show how his operating style might make a substantive difference at Interior.

Clark, a former California Supreme Court jurist, stressed that in his new post he would be, in essence, chief justice of the Interior Department, weighing evidence from both sides of an argument before making a decision. Thus the discussions he has begun with environmental groups are more than ''pro-forma,'' he said, and will help him make up his mind.

And during his four-hour Capitol Hill appearance, he mentioned several times that he intends to follow the law strictly, and to look carefully at what Congress intended the law to be.

''Any of us who interpret the law must start with congressional intent, whether we like it or not,'' he said.

Watt, on the other hand, occasionally stretched laws to fit his policies. In the month before his resignation, for instance, he clashed with Congress and a federal court over the legality of an Interior Department attempt to sell some coal leases in North Dakota.

Environmentalists opposed to Clark's nomination criticized him not for what he said at the nomination hearings, but for what he didn't say.

''He never once mentioned the sanctity of the national parks, for instance,'' says Michael McCloskey, executive director of the Sierra Club. ''If ever there is going to be a change in policies, this was the time to announce it.''

Environmental leaders say they've been awaiting a signal that Clark will be different from Watt - and that so far they have waited in vain.

Despite their objections, Clark appears headed toward a relatively uneventful Senate confirmation. At one point in Clark's hearing, several buzzers sounded - signaling a pending floor vote. ''I knew this [nomination] was something of a railroad job,'' sighed Sen. Paul E. Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts. ''I didn't know it was accompanied by music.''

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