Deb Haaland testifying during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resource, at the U.S. Capitol on February 24. (Photo by Leigh Vogel-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland made history on Monday when she became the first Native American to ever be confirmed by the U.S. Senate to hold a position in a president’s Cabinet.
In a 51-40 vote, senators confirmed Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat, to serve as secretary of Interior, where she will run a $21 billion agency that manages more than 450 million acres of public lands, including 50 million acres of Bureau of Land Management land in Nevada—as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
She was backed by four Republican senators: Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine, and Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
“It is a historic day for Indigenous people across the United States,” said Taylor Patterson, executive director of Native Voters Alliance Nevada, after the vote. Haaland’s confirmation “constitutes the beginning of integrating Native people into decisions being made by the government agencies that oversee our everyday lives. At last, we can begin meaningful involvement in the governance of our ancestral lands,” Patterson said.
Biden’s early moves on energy and environmental policy — including scrapping the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline, freezing new leases for oil and gas development on federal lands and pledging to protect 30% of U.S. land and water by 2030 — made Haaland a big target for Republican members who disagree with the administration’s actions.
Her nomination was marked by repeated attacks from Republican senators, including Montana Sen. Steve Daines, who labeled her as a “far-left ideologue” too “radical” for the position, and Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, who called Haaland a “neo-socialist, left-of-Lenin whack job,” though he later apologized, and said he was searching for another word, POLITICO reported.
The tide of disapproval ran the risk of alienating Native Americans in Western states, and Democrats said that the same things haven’t been said about the administration’s White male nominees.
“I think we need to be honest with ourselves about what is going on here,” Sen. Tina Smith, a Minnesota Democrat, said on the floor Monday just before the vote.
“Once again a woman, and a woman of color, is being held to a different standard and we need to name it. We have to come to grips with the reality. Time after time, strong women, and especially women of color, are attacked, when White men with the same views are welcomed to walk right through that door.”
Smith said that Haaland holds the same policy stances as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, yet neither was attacked the same way.
“This is clear when we see how few Republicans could even acknowledge the historic nature of Representative Haaland’s nomination, choosing instead to focus on hostile questions about her tweets and whether she understands the law,” said Smith.
Democrats Tom Udall of New Mexico and Mark Udall of Colorado, both former U.S. senators, wrote in USA Today that “were either of us the nominee to lead the Interior Department, we doubt that anyone would be threatening to hold up the nomination or wage a scorched earth campaign warning about ‘radical’ ideas.”
Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who serves on the Energy Committee that narrowly moved Haaland’s nomination to the floor, issued a statement after Monday’s vote saying Haaland “holds an important perspective as the first Native woman in a Cabinet-level position and first Native American Secretary of the Department of the Interior, which is positioned to benefit Nevada’s government-to-government relationships with Native American tribes across the state.”
Haaland, 60, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna and 35th-generation New Mexican, was first elected to the House in 2018 after winning a six-candidate Democratic primary in the heavily Democratic 1st Congressional District in New Mexico. She is one of four Native Americans serving in the House.
She is a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, where she chairs the panel’s Natural Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee. Haaland is expected to resign her seat after her confirmation and a special election will be scheduled.
Haaland went through one of the rockiest confirmation hearings so far for any of Biden’s nominees, where for two days she was challenged by Republican senators from the West who probed her positions on Biden administration energy policies and more.
Through bureaus and offices including the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Interior Department sets and enforces federal land use, environmental and tribal policies, including oil and gas leasing on public lands. The BLM is headquartered in Colorado.
Daines questioned Haaland’s support of legislation that would reintroduce grizzly bears to tribal lands, and after the hearing he put a hold on Haaland’s nomination, along with Sen. Cynthia Lummis, a Wyoming Republican.
Lummis said she recognized the historic nature of Haaland’s nomination. “But there is no connection between her heritage and her support of the Green New Deal and attacking oil and natural gas production as a means to address climate change,” she said on the floor.
The holds forced an extra procedural vote, which Haaland on Thursday won 54-42. The same four Republicans who voted for her on Monday also backed advancing her nomination.
HuffPost reported that Graham was influenced by a letter from a tribal leader in his home state. Chief William Harris of the Catawba Indian Nation told Graham that Haaland’s nomination is “truly historic for our community.”
Senate Democrats praised Haaland for her conduct at the rough Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing.
“I will tell you that I have gone to more than my share of nomination hearings, but what I saw was a nominee with exceptional backbone and decency, who was being clear, being straightforward,” Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said on the floor last week.
“At times, it was a little hard to take because the questioning, I thought, was not just strong but over the line. At the same time, the congresswoman showed her calm, her knowledge, and her perseverance in the face of this.”
Nevada Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen said Haaland will strike the right balance between protection and economic development.
“In previous administrations, we have seen efforts to put those public lands on the chopping blocks. But that won’t happen under Deb Haaland’s leadership,” Rosen said.
Advocates for public lands in praised Haaland’s confirmation.
Haaland “will make history as the first Native American to serve in a presidential cabinet. But her specific role in the cabinet is even more significant, given the Interior Department’s relationship with tribal governments and indigenous communities.
Under the Trump administration tribal governments and indigenous communities were “disregarded and the management of our public lands passed over in favor of serving the interests of oil and gas corporations,” said Anette Magnus of Battle Born Progress. “We look forward to a new kind of leadership,” in the Biden adminstration and with Haaland at Interior, Magnus said.
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