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Bernhardt nears confirmation, but Capitol Hill isn’t finished with him

Grijalva wants acting Interior chief to testify on at least two different oversight probes

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was confirmed by the Senate last week by a vote of 56-41. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was confirmed by the Senate last week by a vote of 56-41. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt will likely be confirmed in the Senate by a comfortable margin this week — but that could be his easiest day on Capitol Hill for a while.

The Senate voted 56-41 Wednesday evening to end debate on the nomination after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said earlier in the day that he expected the chamber to be “voting to confirm” Bernhardt “later this week.” And while some coastal Republicans have raised concerns about the Interior Department’s plans for opening all U.S. coasts to oil and gas drilling, there doesn’t appear to be enough GOP opposition to derail confirmation.

But after the coming two-week recess, House Natural Resources Chairman Raul M. Grijalva of Arizona said he plans to call Bernhardt to testify before his committee as part of at least two different oversight investigations into policy decisions driven by the former secretary, Ryan Zinke, who resigned late last year amid corruption allegations.

Those investigations focus on Interior’s proposed plan to reorganize the department and the Trump administration’s decision to shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. The hearings may do little more than give Democrats fresh opportunities to score political points, but they could produce new information on the department’s operations under Zinke’s leadership, during which it faced little congressional oversight.

“The next [oversight hearing] is on the reorganization, and then we’re going to do the Antiquities [Act] pull-back,” Grijalva said, affirming he wants Bernhardt to testify before his committee for both hearings.

ICYMI: Swamp monsters return to the Hill to protest Interior secretary nominee

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The Interior Department received the invitation for the reorganization hearing Wednesday afternoon, said spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort, who added that the department would “respond in a timely manner.” She also said the department previously received a request for Bernhardt to testify on national monuments and noted that the Bureau of Land Management’s Utah director testified before the committee about the monument cuts last month.

Recent developments have provided potential updrafts to Grijalva’s investigations. Weeks ago, Grijalva and his staff received previously undisclosed private calendars from Bernhardt’s time as deputy and acting Interior secretary.

[Newly disclosed meetings with industry create ethics questions for Interior secretary]

Those documents, released publicly last week, appear to tie him to numerous ongoing investigations, showing scheduled meetings about the reorganization plan, monuments and litigation around the Antiquities Act, and other subjects being investigated by Grijalva’s committee.

And last week, the committee’s investigations team got an eyebrow-raising addition: Juliette Lillie, who had served as the director of the department’s Office of the Executive Secretariat and Regulatory Affairs under Zinke.

Lillie had served in that role throughout the former secretary’s tenure; Vander Voort said she left the department “weeks ago.” Her addition was quietly announced by the Natural Resources Committee in a long list of new hires last Friday.

Asked about Lillie’s hiring, Adam Sarvana, the committee’s communications director, sent CQ Roll Call a depiction of her work for the House Appropriations Committee prior to joining the department but declined to comment further.

If Bernhardt showed up before the committee, it would be the first time he testified before House Democrats since they took control of the chamber in January.

He has yet to come before any House or Senate committees to discuss the department’s proposed fiscal 2020 budget, as is customary for agency heads. The absence was apparently tied to his confirmation process; Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum, chairwoman of the House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, has said her panel postponed his appearance for this reason.

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