- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2000

President Clinton's nominee to be the new secretary of Commerce appears headed for a swift approval by the Senate, with support among Republicans and Democrats virtually assured.

Norman Mineta, a former Democratic congressman from California, faced polite demands from senators at his confirmation hearing yesterday that he solidify reforms designed to de-politicize the agency, but no questions that might complicate his appointment.

Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, said he would move the nomination before Congress adjourns for the August recess. But observers said Mr. Mineta, who would be the first Asian-American Cabinet member, likely will have to wait until September for confirmation by the full Senate.

Mr. Clinton announced Mr. Mineta's nomination in June to succeed William Daley as head of the Commerce Department, an agency with a broad array of duties from overseeing patent and trademark registration to administering export controls and monitoring weather and atmospheric conditions.

Mr. Daley left the government on Saturday to run the presidential campaign of Vice President Al Gore, leaving only half a year for Mr. Mineta to put his mark on the department.

"Six months of opportunity and responsibility will demand a greater focus to make a greater difference," he told the committee.

Befitting the myriad duties of Commerce Department officials, Mr. Mineta promised to promote economic growth, access to foreign markets for U.S. companies and measures to reduce the "digital divide" that prevents many Americans from taking part in the high-tech economy.

"My whole being is about dealing with the issues of the underserved and the underprotected," Mr. Mineta said.

Though full of praise for Mr. Mineta's record in support of free trade, Mr. McCain also warned that he would look for continued efforts to de-politicize the Commerce Department.

Detractors have charged that the Commerce Department has become a home to people who had served administrations in campaigns but had little value to the executive branch. The accusation received considerable attention in the past four years because several individuals involved in Clinton administration campaign finance scandals worked at the department.

"We can all probably acknowledge that Commerce Secretary Daley made a valiant effort to clean up the Commerce Department's reputation as a 'dumping ground' for the politically connected," Mr. McCain said. "I hope Mr. Mineta takes this mission seriously."

Mr. McCain also demanded assurances that various guidelines designed to take politics out of the department would be followed. In response to the campaign finance scandals, Mr. Daley instituted procedures to prevent Commerce employees from using their positions to, for example, raise campaign contributions.

Mr. Mineta, in turn, promised a "fire wall" between political activities and the legitimate activities of the department.

Mr. Mineta, 68, a Japanese-American who spent World War II in a Wyoming internment camp, eagerly accepted the top job at the Commerce Department after five years as vice president of special business initiatives for Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin, a defense contractor that did more than $12 billion in business with the federal government last year.

In that position, he worked on the firm's business in "intelligent transportation systems," which allow drivers to pay tolls electronically without stopping their vehicles, but did not lobby federal officials, a Lockheed spokesman said.

The move to Lockheed in 1995 marked an abrupt switch for Mr. Mineta, who had been a Democratic representative from the Silicon Valley area since 1975. By 1993, Mr. Mineta had become chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee. But the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 dampened his enthusiasm for legislative work.

Mr. Mineta gained a reputation in Congress as a defender of the interests of the technology industry before it began its late-1990s explosion of both commercial and political power. He was also an ardent free-trade supporter, backing both the North American Free Trade Agreement and the creation of the World Trade Organization.

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