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Interior pick Deb Haaland wins key Manchin endorsement as GOP grouses

West Virginian's support comes as some Senate Republicans harden opposition

Deb Haaland, Interior secretary nominee, attends Joe Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021.
Deb Haaland, Interior secretary nominee, attends Joe Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., won the crucial backing of Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., on Wednesday for her nomination as Interior secretary.

Manchin, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that’s responsible for vetting her nomination, praised Haaland’s commitment to bipartisanship.

“She reiterated the position of the Biden Administration that our country will continue to use fossil fuels for years to come, even as we transition to a cleaner energy future, through innovation not elimination,” Manchin said in a statement. “Further, she made clear her commitment to working to extend the critical Abandoned Mine Land fees set to expire this year that impact countless states. For all these reasons, I believe Deb Haaland will be a Secretary of the Interior for every American and will vote to confirm her.”

Manchin’s support comes as some Senate Republicans hardened their opposition Wednesday following a second and final round of questioning by the committee. The two days featured hours of sometimes pointed discussion that reflected the broader national debate about the direction of U.S. energy policy.

Another key vote is Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who is up for re-election next year.

Murkowski said after the hearing that committee members had raised fair questions about the administration’s direction on energy issues. She said Haaland told them she appreciated their concerns and would work with them.

“I didn’t hear a lot of real knowledge and understanding as to the role that the secretary has when it comes to the management of public lands,” Murkowski said.

She said she plans to visit with Haaland again.

Fossil fuels’ future

One committee member, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., described Haaland’s nomination as a “proxy fight about the future of fossil fuels.”

Haaland faced Republican resistance from the start, particularly from senators representing oil and gas states, and they seemed unimpressed with her testimony.

“She was unprepared to answer and address many of these issues and is unprepared to lead the department,” the panel’s top Republican, John Barrasso of Wyoming, said after the hearing.

Another committee member, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., issued a statement vowing to fight the nomination, calling Haaland a “hardline ideologue with radical views out of touch with Montana and the West.”

And Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., who is not on the committee, told reporters that Haaland faces significant Republican opposition.

“I think she’s a radical,” Kennedy said. “I think she’s a neo-socialist, left-of-Lenin whack job.”

Haaland supporters say she’s demonstrated that she’s more than qualified for the job, with a history of bipartisan work on environmental issues. They argue her focus on developing clean energy holds more promise for jobs in the future than continuing to rely on boom-and-bust cycles of fossil fuel production.

Even if she fails to garner GOP support, Haaland could be confirmed on a party-line vote if all Democrats united behind her, making Manchin’s decision crucial. While Republicans used the hearing to go after the administration’s pause on oil and gas leases for federal lands, Manchin defended the action by pointing to the many oil and gas leases that have been issued but are unused.

Pausing new leases to review the program makes sense, he said, and he solicited agreement from Haaland that companies already holding leases can continue their operations.

“We haven’t shut anybody down,” Manchin said. “We’re not stopping anybody and I want people to know that.”

Toward the end of the hearing, Manchin thanked Haaland for “being so diligent and doing such a good job.”

Alaska issues

Murkowski also pressed Haaland on the Willow project in her state – a ConocoPhillips crude oil project on federal land halted by an appeals court – and on a road construction project for the isolated town of King Cove, on the state’s western archipelago.

She asked Haaland if she would allow Willow to proceed. Haaland demurred, saying she would follow the law.

Murkowski pressed Haaland to come “very early” if she is confirmed to visit King Cove, a town of 800, drawing a promise that she would. Murkowski has pushed for years for federal approval of a road that would connect the town to a nearby airport.

At times, the questions veered into areas beyond the Interior Department’s direct purview.

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked Haaland about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, an unfinished gas export pipeline the Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom is building under the Baltic Sea that would bring gas to Germany and other European nations.

The pipeline faces bipartisan opposition in Congress due to its Russian backing, and the Biden administration opposes the pipeline too, as did the Trump administration. The State Department, not Interior, is the primary federal department tracking Nord Stream.

The U.S. has sanctioned businesses involved with the construction of the pipeline. But Risch has said those are not sufficient.

Asked by Barrasso about a past comment that taxing marijuana could offset state shortfalls from oil and gas revenue, Haaland said she was making an economic point at the time.

“The point of that, ranking member, was to say that we should diversify our funding streams for education and not just rely on one,” Haaland said.

Barrasso asked if the Biden administration is pitching the jobs in the marijuana trade as employment for “displaced” oil and gas workers. “Is that the better choice? Marijuana?” he asked.

“I honestly don’t know what President [Joe] Biden’s stance is on cannabis,” Haaland said.

Fraught history

Haaland would be the first Native American to lead a department with a fraught history of dealing with the nation’s tribal communities.

Indigenous Americans have followed Haaland’s confirmation with rapt attention. Haaland talked about a friend named Albert who lives in the Navajo Nation.

“He listens to this hearing on the radio, a radio I bought him that’s powered by the sun because he doesn’t have electricity,” Haaland said. He texted her Wednesday morning and told her that Navajo code talkers serving in the U.S. military used a native word for “our mother,” she said, as code for “the United States.”

“I feel very strongly that that sums up what we’re dealing with. This is all of our country. This is our mother. You’ve heard the Earth referred to as Mother Earth. It’s difficult to not feel obligated to protect this land,” Haaland said. “Every indigenous person in this country understands that which is why we have such a high rate of our people who serve in the military. We want to protect this country and that means protecting it in every single way.”

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