Biden pick for Interior secretary likely to face rocky confirmation hearing

By: - February 22, 2021 6:33 am

Nominee for Secretary of Interior, Congresswoman Deb Haaland, speaks after President-elect Joe Biden announced his climate and energy appointments at the Queen theater on December 19, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Haaland is the first Native American nominated to serve on the presidential cabinet. (Photo by Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

U.S. Senate Republicans are expected to use this week’s Interior confirmation hearing for Rep. Debra Haaland to air their grievances about the Biden administration’s energy policies, running the risk of alienating Native Americans in Western states.

GOP Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Steve Daines of Montana sit on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which will hold the Tuesday hearing, and both have already raised objections that Haaland holds “radical” views. Daines vowed to block her progress in the Senate unless she addresses several issues that concern him.

If confirmed, Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat, would be the first Native American person to hold a Cabinet position, a significant symbolic step for the federal department charged with overseeing most federal-tribal relations. She is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna.

Because of the historic nature of Haaland’s nomination, the GOP criticism of her has already irked representatives of Native American people.

Democrats on the panel, including Catherine Cortez Masto, have mostly signaled approval of Haaland’s nomination. After meeting with Haaland last month, Cortez Masto issued a statement saying she had “congratulated her on her historic nomination to be the first Native American Secretary of the Interior and the first Native woman in a Cabinet-level position.”

In her statement Cortez Masto noted her own work on legislation “to curb the epidemic of missing, murdered and trafficked Native women and girls,” as well as her sponsorship of legislation to end speculative oil and gas leasing.

A Biden administration order halting new oil and gas leases on federal lands is one of the issues Republican are expected to complain about at Haaland’s confirmation hearing.

Barrasso, Daines rattled by nominee

President Joe Biden’s early moves on energy and environmental policy —–including scrapping the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline, as well as the freeze on new leases for oil and gas development on federal lands and pledging to protect 30% of U.S. land and water by 2030—have made Haaland a target for Republican members who disagree with the administration’s actions.

Bret Hartl, the head of government affairs at the liberal environmental group Center for Biological Diversity, predicted that Republicans will make Haaland’s hearing “a surrogate fight” in a broader disagreement over environmental policy, including the administration’s oil and gas leasing pause, pipeline withdrawal and aggressive conservation goals.

“They’re trying to blame her for a policy they don’t agree with,” Hartl said. “No one will raise a fact that she is not well-qualified and an excellent choice.”

Haaland’s allies praise her familiarity with many of the issues Interior handles, including tribal relations, and conservation as the head of the House subcommittee overseeing public lands.

“She’s perfectly aligned to have a good working coalition,” said Taylor Patterson, the executive director of Native Voters Alliance Nevada.

As a House member, Haaland was an original co-sponsor of the climate change legislation known as the Green New Deal and has said she’ll work to “keep fossil fuels in the ground.”

With that background and Biden’s actions, Republican senators with pro-fossil fuel records have weighed in early.

Barrasso, the top Republican on Senate Energy, said he wouldn’t support Haaland’s nomination unless she rejected “policies that will force energy workers into the unemployment line.”

“Representative Haaland’s radical views are squarely at odds with the responsible management of our nation’s energy resources,” he said through a spokesman. “Her vocal opposition to oil and gas production on federal lands will only encourage President Biden along the illegal and reckless path that he has begun.”

Daines said after a private meeting with Haaland earlier this month he would block her confirmation unless she addressed several concerns he had, potentially stretching out the process and forcing procedural votes in advance of the final confirmation vote. She’s still likely to prevail, since her confirmation needs only a simple majority in a Senate split 50-50 with tie-breaking votes cast by Vice President Kamala Harris.

“I’m deeply concerned with the Congresswoman’s support on several radical issues that will hurt Montana, our way of life, our jobs and rural America, including her support for the Green New Deal and President Biden’s oil and gas moratorium, as well as her opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline,” Daines said in a Feb. 5 statement.

Native Americans have pushed back, especially against senators like Daines whose states have significant Native American populations.

Tom Rodgers, a member of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana and acting president of the Global Indigenous Council, acknowledged that Daines disagrees with Haaland on oil and gas policy, but said the senator should have at least given Haaland the courtesy of being heard at a public hearing before voicing such strong opposition.

“I don’t think that the senator wants to go where he’s going,” Rodgers said in an interview. “This is a woman who has achieved an incredible record to date. She deserves respect… She’s entitled to be heard, and she’s entitled to be heard before such harsh judgments are made. And given the significant Native American population Sen. Daines represents in Montana, he knows that.”

Aides to Daines did not respond to a message seeking comment.

The Montana Legislature’s American Indian Caucus wrote Daines and U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana, also a Republican, to say their opposition was “deeply offensive.”

Rosendale joined a letter with other House Republicans that called Haaland “a direct threat to working men and women and a rejection of responsible development of America’s natural resources.” (Nevada’s only Republican in the House, Rep. Mark Amodei, did not sign that letter.)

The Montana-based Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council produced an ad that said the only “radical” thing about Haaland’s nomination is that it took nearly 250 years to happen.

While Native American representation at Interior is important, Rodgers, Patterson and others said they were confident in Haaland’s qualifications without regard to her racial background.

Slow pace on confirmations

Haaland’s confirmation already is running behind — the timing of the hearing means Haaland likely won’t get a vote on the floor of the Senate until sometime in mid-March at the earliest. That timeline would make Haaland’s start date the latest in modern history for a president’s first Interior secretary.

Other Biden nominees have been moving slowly, too, in part due to the Senate’s impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. The Senate still has not confirmed Energy Secretary-designate Jennifer Granholm, though Senate Energy questioned her Jan. 27.

The Senate didn’t confirm Ryan Zinke, Trump’s first Interior secretary, until March 1, 2017. But Senate confirmations of Interior secretaries have typically been routine and speedy. Other than Trump, every president since Woodrow Wilson had his choice for Interior secretary confirmed within two weeks of inauguration.

Even Zinke was at least further along in the process than Haaland is now at an equivalent time in Trump’s term. The Senate Energy Committee held confirmation hearings for the then-House member from Montana on Jan. 17, 2017—three days before Trump’s inauguration.

Former officials and activists told States Newsroom that the delay is not ideal, but is still brief enough to have little real-world effect.

Native American communities in Nevada are focused on getting resources for COVID-19 relief, and haven’t really noticed problems with Interior or its agencies, Patterson said.

Capable career staff are keeping things running as they prepare for a secretary’s arrival, Hartl said.

Still, some important work, including picking top deputies and other key decision-makers, can’t happen until Haaland takes office.

“It’s important to have top leadership in place as soon as possible so that the president’s Cabinet can work together implementing the new administration’s agenda,” said Bob Abbey, a former director of the Bureau of Land Management under President Barack Obama.

An Interior Department spokesperson declined to comment.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.