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Energy, Education Nominees Begin Confirmation Hearings

January 13, 2009 at 6:25 PM EDT
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Along with Secretary of State nominee Hillary Clinton, the nominees for Secretary of Education and Secretary of Energy began their Senate confirmation hearings Tuesday on Capitol Hill. Ray Suarez reports on the process.
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RAY SUAREZ: Of all the confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill on the president-elect’s domestic agenda, only one involved testimony from a Nobel Prize winner. Energy secretary-designate Steven Chu appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

In 1997, Chu shared the Nobel Prize for physics. He’s served as director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory since 2004. The scientist said he would bring the lab’s focus on renewable energy with him to Washington, with the goal of cutting greenhouse gases.

STEVEN CHU, Energy secretary nominee: Climate change is a growing and pressing problem. It’s now clear that, if we continue on our current path, we run the risk of dramatic disruptive changes to our climate in the lifetimes of our children and our grandchildren.

RAY SUAREZ: When the time came for committee questions, the hottest topic was nuclear power.

Tennessee Republican Bob Corker:

SEN. BOB CORKER, R-Tenn.: It’s my understanding based on what I have heard hear today, you mean pursue nuclear now, in spite of the — some of the issues we have regarding waste; is that correct?

STEVEN CHU: Yes, because I’m pretty confident — I’m confident that the Department of Energy, perhaps in collaboration with other countries, can get a — a solution to the nuclear waste problem.

RAY SUAREZ: Committee Democrat Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, a coal-producing state, pressed Chu to clarify past remarks he had made about coal and the carbon emissions it generates.

SEN. BYRON DORGAN, D-N.D.: The statements you made about, coal is your worst nightmare, I understand the context in which you made it. So, you said what you said. And that’s been ricocheting around the Internet. Address that for the committee as well.

STEVEN CHU: I said that in the con — the following context. If the world continues to use coal the way we’re using it today — and the world I mean in particular, not only the United States, but China, India and Russia — then, it is a pretty bad dream.

But I also stay say many times in my talks that coal is an abundant resource in the world. Two-thirds of the known coal reserves in the world lie in only four countries, the United States first and foremost, followed by India, China, and Russia.

India and China, Russia, and the United States, I believe, will not turn their back on coal. So, it is imperative that we figure out a way to use coal as cleanly as possible.

Senators press nominees on economy

RAY SUAREZ: Chu also said he would try to move quickly to implement whatever green energy provisions end up on president-elect Obama's upcoming stimulus plan.

The troubles of the economy were front and center at two of today's hearings and clearly on the minds of nominees and senators alike.

First to the hearing for Peter Orszag, named by the president-elect as the next director of the Office of Management and Budget. Orszag is a former director of the Congressional Budget Office. He spoke in favor of a stimulus plan still being negotiated and said he was aware of the daunting economic problems.

PETER ORSZAG, director, Office of Management and Budget-Designate: This hearing is being held at a momentous time. In the short run, we face the most severe economic crisis that has occurred since the Great Depression.

Over the medium and long run, we face the prospect of large and growing deficits that are unsustainable. These twin challenges of economic recovery and fiscal responsibility will make the job of OMB particularly challenging. But, again, if confirmed, I relish and look forward to attempting to meet those challenges.

RAY SUAREZ: Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama said he was particularly worried about a projected deficit topping $1 trillion.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS, R-Ala.: An economy founded on huge governmental debt, huge personal debt, and a huge trade deficit is not a healthy economy; would you agree?

PETER ORSZAG: I do agree with that. As we emerge from this downturn, we absolutely need to put the nation on a sounder course. It is unsustainable for the world's leading economic power to be saving 1 or 2 percent of its income, investing 7 or 8 percent, and borrowing the difference from abroad year after year after year.

Foreclosure crisis tops HUD agenda

RAY SUAREZ: At another confirmation, Shaun Donovan, Mr. Obama's choice for secretary of housing and urban development, the foreclosure crisis was the key concern. And Donovan said fixing that problem was at the top of the administration's agenda.

 SHAUN DONOVAN, secretary-designate, Housing and Urban Development: I think there's no question -- you have heard it in my opening statement today -- you have heard it I think from every member of the committee -- that the foreclosure crisis that is facing the American people, American families, American neighborhoods, is job one for HUD, and that we must immediately, should I be confirmed, move towards addressing that crisis.

And I think you have heard president-elect Obama say very clearly that his administration will put forward a bold and comprehensive plan that will address this crisis.

RAY SUAREZ: Donovan knows housing issues well, serving until recently as the housing commissioner for New York City.

Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama told him he wanted to make sure he also looked at the origins of the housing crisis.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY, R-Ala.: So, if we don't deconstruct what went wrong and how to fix it, we will never fix it, will we?

SHAUN DONOVAN: I agree with you that we need to understand the -- the causes of the problem.

And, again, I -- I think that there are issues that occurred in the market, really in every part of the market, and that we need to look comprehensively at that. And that means we need to understand the incentives for lenders, for brokers, for a whole range of different players, rating agencies. It's a very complex system, as you know.

Duncan would improve 'No Child' law

RAY SUAREZ: Another hearing focused on education and secretary-designate Arne Duncan. He served as chief of the Chicago Public Schools, until picked by Mr. Obama.

During the campaign, candidate Obama said he wanted to improve the federal law known as No Child Left Behind, but was not specific about how he would do it. Today, Duncan offered few specifics, but he said he agreed with the president-elect that too many schools were unfairly penalized by the law's rigidity.

ARNE DUNCAN, Education secretary-designate: To label a school as a -- a school itself as a failure, an entire school, because one child in one subgroup didn't hit a mark or didn't hit a bar, to me, there's a lack, again, just of sort of pragmatic logic behind that.

So, if individual children need additional support and additional tutoring, let's do that. Let's make sure the medicine fits -- fits what is going on there. Let's not take too blunt an instrument to an entire school or to a school community where that doesn't make sense.

RAY SUAREZ: Duncan told senators, his approach to education was shaped in part by observing his mother's inner city tutoring program and how it helped some students.

ARNE DUNCAN: And all these guys came from one little corner of 46th and Greenwood on the South Side of Chicago.

So, what I saw, again, literally, from the time I was born, was, despite challenges at home, despite challenges in the community that are sometimes unimaginable, our young people can be very, very successful, if we stay with them, work with them hard every single day.

RAY SUAREZ: Duncan listed several other fundamental goals for his tenure at Education, including merit pay for teachers, which he supported in Chicago, improving access for higher education and early education, and reducing high school dropout rates.

Duncan and the rest of the nominees heard today are expected to be confirmed by the Senate soon.