GOP critics unlikely to let up on Haaland after confirmation

Her views on public land use in the West draw ire from Republican lawmakers, especially in states producing fossil fuels

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., nominee to be Interior secretary. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., nominee to be Interior secretary. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 15, 2021 at 6:00am

Based on her confirmation process, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., can plan on some contentious oversight hearings in her role as Interior secretary.

Haaland is set to be confirmed Monday despite the fierce objections of Republican critics, particularly lawmakers representing Western oil and gas states.

Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor and nominations expert, said opposition from that group is expected given that President Joe Biden has pledged an aggressive push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the fight against climate change.

“A lot of that depends on what happens on public lands and so I don’t think you can get away from that,” Tobias said. “And those are tough issues for Western senators whose states are very dependent on those resources.”

But the aggressiveness of the opposition previews the potential for conflict between members of Congress and the department under Haaland’s leadership.

“We’ll see some more concerns from the western senators — they’re not going to go away,” Tobias said. “That comes with the territory. But she seems prepared and I think she’ll listen.”

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Only a handful of Republicans are likely to vote for her nomination Monday.

Other Biden nominees to run the Transportation Department, Energy Department and the EPA have garnered their share of Republican “no” votes, but the rhetoric leveled at Haaland has often been more personal.

'Whack job'

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., called her a “neo-socialist, left-of-Lenin whack job” while Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., said Haaland’s past statements show she’s “more radical in her positions than President Biden.”

Opponents have cited her support for the aggressive climate action blueprint known as the Green New Deal and her opposition to fossil fuel infrastructure projects, specifically citing her participation in protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Grizzly bears haven’t received so much attention in a confirmation process since President Donald Trump’s choice for Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, cited their threat as a potential reason to keep guns in schools.

Republicans criticized Haaland’s past support for keeping the bears’ endangered species protections in perpetuity. They said her position ignores scientific recommendations.

Overall, they have characterized her approach as putting a bubble over public lands and shielding them from any productive use.

“Rep. Haaland’s extreme views, co-sponsorship of catastrophic legislation and a lack of responsiveness disqualify her from this important position as secretary of Interior,” said Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., has lead the charge against Haaland, placing a hold on her nomination to delay votes and force more debate. He said his opposition is motivated by a desire to protect his state.

'Playground for the rich'

“Because you kill the energy jobs, you kill all the pipelines, you kill our natural resources, Montana is left to be simply a playground for the rich and famous,” Daines said. “We've got to stand up for hard working Montanans and protect their way of life.”

Democrats highlighted the historic nature of her nomination to be the first Native American Cabinet secretary. It’s particularly symbolic since she’ll be leading a department at the center of the relationship between the federal government and sovereign tribal nations.

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Haaland supporters also suggested critics crossed the line by tossing out words like “radical” to describe her attitude toward the environment. Conservative Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, introduced her at the confirmation hearing, they noted.

“She’s been a leader in generating bipartisan support for efforts in the House,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said. “She’s got one of the most conservative members of the House singing her praises, coming before the committee.”

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., cited her background as a single mother, small business owner and tribal administrator, saying those experiences will give her insight into how Washington-based decisions affect people across the country.

Heinrich said he was disappointed by the tenor of the committee hearing and that Haaland’s past positions and statements represent the vast majority of her constituents.

“As a Westerner, Congresswoman Haaland well understands that confronting the climate crisis, not denying it, and transforming our economy will not come without cost,” Heinrich said. “We need to be honest about that. That is especially true for fossil fuel workers, including many of our fellow New Mexicans who have long powered our economy and deserve our respect and support.”

Still, it’s clear that some of the concerns about Biden energy policies are bipartisan.

Heinrich and Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., wrote to the administration recently about its decision to pause oil and gas leasing on federal lands while it reviews the program.

The Democratic senators wrote that a short-term pause is fully appropriate but that an extended suspension would impact workers and state funding for education.

“We oppose an indefinite federal ban on oil and gas leasing, and we urge the administration to complete its review and resume responsible leasing as soon as possible,” they wrote.