WASHINGTON - Federico Pena, President Clinton's choice to head the Energy Department during his second term, drew praise Friday for his managerial skills as transportation secretary, tempered with concern over his knowledge of energy issues.
Mr. Clinton nominated Mr. Pena, 49, to succeed Hazel O'Leary, a controversial energy secretary who won acclaim for opening up long-hidden government secrets to the public but came under fire for extravagant travel habits.
During a news conference Mr. Clinton held Friday to announce his final round of Cabinet appointments, he said Pena's four years at the Transportation Department showed he's up to the Energy post.
"To manage this diverse and sprawling operation, the secretary of energy must be an experienced leader and manager who understands the demands of a large government agency," the president said. "Federico Pena has proven himself a talented leader."
"The Department of Transportation is a smaller but more effective organization now," said Mr. Pena. "I hope to bring that same kind of efficiency to the Department of Energy."
During his stint at Transportation, the former Denver mayor won praise for cutting the department's payroll by some 11,000 employees and remodeling a troubled Federal Aviation Administration. But he drew fire when he defended the safety of Valujet after the airline's crash in the Florida Everglades last May that killed 110 people.
Mr. Pena's nomination caught members of Congress and advocacy groups interested in energy issues by surprise. As late as Thursday night, the odds-on favorite for the job had appeared to be Elizabeth Moler, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The Military Production Network, a Washington-based coalition of three dozen groups that monitors nuclear weapons production and cleanup, already had begun examining Ms. Moler's background.
"(Mr. Pena is) a blank slate at the moment on energy issues," said Maureen Eldridge, a spokeswoman for the organization. "We don't know about his qualifications."
U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga, said he will be disappointed if he finds that Mr. Pena has a scant background in energy issues. He pointed out that Ms. O'Leary, whom he has criticized as anti-nuclear power, at least has the benefit of four years in the job.
But Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who represents the district that is home to the DOE's Savannah River Site, said he sees Mr. Pena's apparent lack of experience in energy issues as positive. Mr. Graham said Mr. O'Leary's anti-nuclear stance hurt the chances for future missions that could benefit the country and help create jobs a downsized SRS.
"Hopefully, he will come in with an open mind," Mr. Graham said. "He may have a more encouraging position on plutonium disposition, reprocessing and tritium production than the last secretary."
Some groups were willing to give Mr. Pena the benefit of the doubt for now, based on his Cabinet experience.
"As an established member of the Clinton administration, Mr. Pena has an appreciation of the critical energy issues facing the industry," said Joe F. Colvin, president and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear industry's policy organization, in a written statement.
"Foremost is how to give DOE the ability to meet its legal obligation to manage used nuclear fuel. We look forward to working with Mr. Pena to find a workable solution."
Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, promised a thorough review of Clinton's energy nominee. And committee member Pete Domenici, R-N.M., predicted that Mr. Pena may have trouble winning confirmation because of his apparent lack of experience in major DOE missions.
Although his Armed Services Committee will play no direct role in the confirmation process, Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., also expects to put Mr. Pena under the microscope.
"We'll send him policy questions and probably do a live sitdown with him," said Chris Cimko, a spokeswoman for Mr. Thurmond. "We're going to look at his expertise in defense nuclear issues ... his ability to manage this technology, which is even now being developed and is very critical to the nation."
Mr. Clinton dismissed the suggestion that Mr. Pena's selection was based more on his desire to include an Hispanic in his Cabinet than on the nominee's qualifications and experience. The departure of Pena from Transportation and the resignation of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros would have left the Cabinet without an Hispanic member if the president had not tapped Mr. Pena for Energy.
"I am very proud of this Cabinet," Mr. Clinton said. "I am proud that they are diverse, but I would not have appointed a single one of them because of their gender, or their racial or ethnic background, had I not thought that they could succeed."
Staff Writer Karin Schill contributed to this article.