What we learned from Rick Perry's confirmation hearing

What we learned from Rick Perry's confirmation hearing
© Greg Nash

Rick Perry’s path to becoming Energy secretary appears clear, as he avoided any major missteps at his confirmation hearing Thursday while attracting some Democratic support. 

The hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee was revealing, providing insight into Perry’s approach to the Department of Energy (DOE), how Republicans intend to move his nomination along and what Democrats hope the Trump administration won’t do when Perry takes over. 

Here’s what we learned.

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Dems snark, but Perry says he wants to lead the agency

The first line uttered by a Democrat at Thursday’s hearing was a potshot at Perry’s infamous 2011 “oops,” gaffe, in which he forgot during a debate that the Department of Energy was among the agencies he would abolish if elected president. 

“In case you may have forgotten, you once called for the abolishment of the agency,” Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Mike Roman says 3M on track to deliver 2 billion respirators globally and 1 billion in US by end of year; US, Pfizer agree to 100M doses of COVID-19 vaccine that will be free to Americans Overnight Energy: Supreme Court reinstates fast-track pipeline permit except for Keystone XL | Judge declines to reverse Dakota Access Pipeline shutdown OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Watchdog accuses Commerce of holding up 'Sharpiegate' report | Climate change erases millennia of cooling: study | Senate nixes proposal limiting Energy Department's control on nuclear agency budget MORE (D-Wash.) said. “I expect now, having had the chance to learn about the department, you have a very different opinion.”

But Perry said Thursday that he was wrong to call for ending the DOE and that he’s ready to lead the department if he’s confirmed to the post. 

"My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking," Perry said. 

"In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination."

Perry said he has a handle on the mission of the DOE, which focuses heavily on overseeing the United States' nuclear arsenal but also conducts energy and environmental research.

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“I am committed to modernizing our nuclear stockpile, promoting and developing American energy in all forms, advancing the department’s critical science and technology mission and carefully disposing of nuclear waste,” he said.

But when it comes to his old pledge the end the DOE, Democrats were less forgiving. 

“I want to say on behold of the nearly 25,000 New Mexicans who work at Sandia, Los Alamos, who work at WIPP, at NNSA and DOE, I want to thank you for you statement of regret for saying you want to eliminate DOE,” Sen. Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Watchdog report raises new questions for top Interior lawyer | Senate Democrats ask Trump to withdraw controversial public lands nominee | Border wall water use threatens endangered species, environmentalists say Senate Democrats ask Trump to withdraw controversial public lands nominee Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic MORE (D-N.M.) said, listing acronyms for Energy Department installations in his state.

Republicans are fine with Perry’s background

Perry’s resume, while loaded with political experience, lacks the scientific heft of his predecessors. 

The current Energy secretary, Ernest MonizErnest Jeffrey MonizOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Dems press Trump consumer safety nominee on chemical issues | Lawmakers weigh how to help struggling energy industry | 180 Democrats ask House leadership for clean energy assistance Lawmakers weigh how to help struggling energy industry The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Surgeon General stresses need to invest much more in public health infrastructure, during and after COVID-19; Fauci hopeful vaccine could be deployed in December MORE, is a nuclear physicist and former MIT professor. Before him, Steven Chu was a Nobel Prize winner, and President George W. Bush’s last energy secretary, Samuel Bodman, taught chemical engineering at MIT.  

Perry, meanwhile, is a former 14-year governor, but one whose grades at Texas A&M University were middling.

But Republicans appear unconcerned about Perry’s lack of a scientific background, saying his management credentials are more important at a $30 billion, 14,400-person department.

“I don’t subscribe to the theory that only scientists can manage other scientists. I think what we need is a good manager,” Committee Chairwoman Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiBipartisan senators ask congressional leadership to extend census deadline Davis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump On The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS MORE (R-Alaska) said.  

“We need a manager to manage all these scientists, one who acknowledges maybe I don’t know everything in that space, but being capable of organizing, setting direction, imposing accountability, making the greatest possible use of taxpayer dollars and setting goals.”

Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) suggested Perry will need “lots and lots of experts” to help him manage the DOE.  

“Your soon-to-be predecessor was a nuclear physicist, as you know,” he said. “My contention would be you don’t have to be a nuclear physicist to run this agency.” 

Republicans have a new line on climate change 

Cabinet nominees have taken a different approach to climate change questions than their future boss, President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrat calls on White House to withdraw ambassador to Belarus nominee TikTok collected data from mobile devices to track Android users: report Peterson wins Minnesota House primary in crucial swing district MORE, who has called it a hoax.  

“I believe the climate is changing,” Perry said. “I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is also caused by manmade activity. The question is how do we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn’t compromise economic growth, the affordability of energy, or American jobs.”

In the past, Republicans would typically say they were “not a scientist” when asked about the scientific consensus that climate change is man-made. 

Perry’s answer on climate change has been delivered by several of Trump’s Cabinet nominees.

“Science tells us that the climate is changing, and that human activity, in some manner, impacts that change,” Environmental Protection Agency nominee Scott Pruitt said during his Wednesday hearing. 

“The ability to measure with precision, the degree and extent of that impact, and what to do about it, are subject to continuing debate and dialogue, and well it should be.”

The day before, Interior secretary nominee Ryan Zinke said climate change is not a hoax, but that “I think where there’s debate is what that influence is, what we can do about it.”

Those answers won’t satisfy climate hawks who want an aggressive climate change agenda, with less of a focus on the cost to the economy.

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Democrats fret over budget cuts

Committee Democrats were especially concerned about DOE budget cuts that have been floated by Trump’s transition team. 

The Hill on Wednesday reported that the Trump transition team is preparing to propose cuts to the DOE’s physics, computing, energy efficiency and fossil energy offices, among other areas of the budget. 

Democrats like Sens. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowACLU calls on Congress to approve COVID-19 testing for immigrants Senators press IRS chief on stimulus check pitfalls Democrats warn Biden against releasing SCOTUS list MORE (Mich.) and Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoSenate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Overnight Defense: Guardsman to testify Lafayette Square clearing was 'unprovoked escalation' | Dems push for controversial Pentagon nominee to withdraw | Watchdog says Pentagon not considering climate change risks to contractors Democrats urge controversial Pentagon policy nominee to withdraw MORE (Hawaii) said they were concerned about the report. 

“This is absolutely nuts in terms of the future of energy in this country,” Sen. Angus KingAngus KingSenate Democrats push to include free phone calls for incarcerated people in next relief package Trump's pitch to Maine lobstermen falls flat OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court cancels shutdown of Dakota Access Pipeline | US could avoid 4.5M early deaths by fighting climate change, study finds | Officials warn of increasing cyber threats to critical infrastructure during pandemic MORE (I-Maine) said. “I find it almost self-parody to be cutting energy research at this moment in time.” 

Perry said the report might not be true and that he would work to protect agency budgets. 

He even used his 2011 gaffe to disarm budget cut talks.  

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“Well, senator, maybe they’ll have the same experience I had and forget that they said that,” he told Hirono. 

Perry looks primed to pick up Dem votes 

Perry did little to hurt his standing with senators on Thursday, and he seems likely to win confirmation to his post. 

He might even pick up some support from Democrats, especially red-state members who are pleased by his support for fossil fuel development.  

Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinHillicon Valley: Facebook removes Trump post | TikTok gets competitor | Lawmakers raise grid safety concerns OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court cancels shutdown of Dakota Access Pipeline | US could avoid 4.5M early deaths by fighting climate change, study finds | Officials warn of increasing cyber threats to critical infrastructure during pandemic Officials warn of increasing cyber threats to critical infrastructure during pandemic MORE (D-W.Va.) helped introduce Perry at the hearing, noting their time working together when both were governors.

But he also asked Perry to conduct more fossil fuel research than Obama’s DOE. Perry said he would, something that will appeal to senators from energy-heavy states. 

“Don’t get me confused with the previous administration,” Perry said. “From the standpoint of being an individual who has promoted those sources of energy that can drive the economy, and at the same time help our environment, I have a record of doing that.”