Senate panel approves controversial Interior nominee

Senate panel approves controversial Interior nominee
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A Senate committee on Thursday advanced four key Trump nominees to the Interior and Energy departments and the federal energy regulatory panel. 

Three of the nominees passed on strong bipartisan votes. But most Democrats opposed David Bernhardt, Trump’s pick to be deputy secretary of the Interior, given his time in the private sector lobbying the agency

Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellMcConnell sets Friday night deadline for bipartisan deal on stimulus Washington state lawmakers warn health workers running low on protective gear Carper staffer tests positive in Delaware MORE (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, supported the three other nominees but said she could not support Bernhardt because of his lucrative job lobbying on Interior-related issues as recently as last year, as well as controversies from his tenure at Interior under George W. Bush.

“There is nothing wrong with Mr. Bernhardt representing these clients as a lawyer, but giving him the power to adjudicate his former client’s interests as deputy secretary of the Interior raises serious appearance of conflict of interest issues,” she said.

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Bernhardt is chairman of the natural resources law practice at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and earned at least $1.1 million last year lobbying for more than a dozen energy and mining firms, including oil and gas companies.

Environmentalists and conservationists have lined up to oppose Bernhardt’s nomination, warning that he could use his position in Interior to boost the fortunes of his clients. More than 150 groups wrote the Senate a letter last month urging them to oppose him. 

Bernhardt has agreed to not work on issues related to his former clients for at least one year. 

“If I get a whiff of something coming why that involves a former client or my firm, I will make that item go straight to the ethics office and whatever they decide, that will be it for me,” Bernhardt said at his confirmation hearing last month. 

“I have signed the exact same agreements my predecessors have, and I will stand by that.” 

But Democrats have said that recusal needs to be longer.

“I do not understand how Mr. Bernhardt expects to have an open process on these issues,” she said.

Republicans, though, have called Bernhardt experienced and knowledgeable, and GOP senators from the West have boosted the nomination of the Colorado native.

The committee approved Bernhardt’s nomination 14-9 on Tuesday. Sens. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinPoliticians mourn the death of Bill Withers Pressure mounts for national parks closure amid coronavirus White House, Senate reach deal on trillion stimulus package MORE (D-W.Va.) and Angus KingAngus KingWe weren't ready for a pandemic — imagine a crippling cyberattack Senators offer bill to extend tax filing deadline Russia using coronavirus fears to spread misinformation in Western countries MORE (I-Maine) were the only non-Republicans to approve his nomination. 

The committee also cleared Dan Brouillette to be the deputy secretary of the Department of Energy. The former Bush administration official secured five Democratic votes, including Cantwell, who said he “will bring to the job an inside knowledge of the department’s missions.”

The committee also approved Trump’s two Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) nominees, Neil Chatterjee and Robert Powelson, on 20-3 votes. 

Only Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWisconsin Supreme Court blocks governor's effort to delay election The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden, Trump discuss coronavirus response; Wisconsin postpones elections Wisconsin governor postpones Tuesday's election over coronavirus MORE (I-Vt.), Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenDemocrats ask EPA, Interior to pause rulemaking amid coronavirus Democrats say more unemployment benefits needed in wake of record unemployment claims Democrats fear coronavirus impact on November turnout MORE (D-Ore.) and Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoOvernight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill Democratic senators want probe into change of national stockpile description Democratic senators ask IRS to extend tax filing deadline amid coronavirus outbreak MORE (D-Hawaii) voted against the FERC nominees, despite opposition from many environmental activists who consider the agency a rubber stamp for the fossil fuel sector.

As the committee discussed and voted on the FERC nominees, three activists in the committee room shouted protests against the agency before being escorted out by security. 

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiOil giants meet at White House amid talk of buying strategic reserves GOP senators begin informal talks on new coronavirus stimulus Murkowski pushes Mnuchin for oil company loans MORE (R-Alaska) said all four nominees are “capable, competent and well-qualified,” and she said she hopes to bring them to the floor for confirmation votes after the Senate concludes work on other legislative items. 

But Murkowski said she was concerned about the pace of nominations coming from the Trump administration. Between these four nominees and the secretaries of Interior and Energy — Ryan Zinke and Rick Perry, respectively — the committee has cleared only six administration officials this session. 

“I don’t think that’s an acceptable pace,” she said. “Just saying.”