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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 CantwellMurkowski votes with Senate panel to advance Haaland nomination Regulators keep close eye on Facebook's deal with Australia Video stirs emotions on Trump trial's first day 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) ManchinSunday shows preview: Manchin makes the rounds after pivotal role in coronavirus relief debate Biden takes victory lap after Senate passes coronavirus relief package Schumer insists Democrats unified after chaotic coronavirus debate MORE (D-W.Va.) and Angus KingAngus KingSenate approves sweeping coronavirus measure in partisan vote The eight Democrats who voted 'no' on minimum wage Justice Democrats call moderates' votes against minimum wage hike 'unconscionable' 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 SandersSinema pushes back on criticism of her vote against minimum wage, implying that it's sexist Biden takes victory lap after Senate passes coronavirus relief package Schumer insists Democrats unified after chaotic coronavirus debate MORE (I-Vt.), Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSenate approves sweeping coronavirus measure in partisan vote Senate inches toward COVID-19 vote after marathon session Senate Democrats vote to provide 0 unemployment benefits into September MORE (D-Ore.) and Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoOvernight Defense: Capitol Police may ask National Guard to stay | Biden's Pentagon policy nominee faces criticism | Naval Academy midshipmen moved to hotels Republicans blast Pentagon policy nominee over tweets, Iran nuclear deal OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats reintroduce road map to carbon neutrality by 2050 | Kerry presses oil companies to tackle climate change | Biden delays transfer of sacred lands for copper mine 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 MurkowskiTrump promises to travel to Alaska to campaign against Murkowski GOP votes in unison against COVID-19 relief bill Senate approves sweeping coronavirus measure in partisan vote 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.”