Senate panel approves controversial Interior nominee

Senate panel approves controversial Interior nominee
© Getty Images

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 CantwellWill Congress act to stop robocalls? Native American advocates question 2020 Democrats' commitment Hillicon Valley: Trump reportedly weighing executive action on alleged tech bias | WH to convene summit on online extremism | Federal agencies banned from buying Huawei equipment | Lawmakers jump start privacy talks 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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) ManchinOvernight Energy: Green groups sue Trump over Endangered Species Act changes | Bureau of Land Management retirees fight plan to relocate agency | Wildfires in Amazon rainforest burn at record rate Bureau of Land Management retirees fight plan to relocate agency out west GOP senator: Gun control debate 'hasn't changed much at all' back home MORE (D-W.Va.) and Angus KingAngus Stanley KingBipartisan panel to issue recommendations for defending US against cyberattacks early next year New intel chief inherits host of challenges Senators ask for committee vote on 'red flag' bills after shootings 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 Sanders2020 candidates have the chance to embrace smarter education policies Bernie Sanders Adviser talks criminal justice reform proposal, 'Medicare for All' plan Poll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona MORE (I-Vt.), Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenWyden blasts FEC Republicans for blocking probe into NRA over possible Russia donations Wyden calls for end to political ad targeting on Facebook, Google Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity MORE (D-Ore.) and Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoLawmakers urge DNC to name Asian American debate moderator Democratic senator on possibility of Trump standing up to the NRA: 'That's just such BS' Schumer to Trump: Demand McConnell hold vote on background check bill 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 MurkowskiOvernight Energy: Green groups sue Trump over Endangered Species Act changes | Bureau of Land Management retirees fight plan to relocate agency | Wildfires in Amazon rainforest burn at record rate Bureau of Land Management retirees fight plan to relocate agency out west The Hill's Morning Report - Progressives, centrists clash in lively Democratic debate 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.”