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 CantwellDemocrats haggle as deal comes into focus Democrats say they have path to deal on climate provisions in spending bill Infrastructure bill carves out boosts to first responders, wildland firefighters 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 ManchinJoe ManchinBiden to meet House Dems before Europe trip: report 21 House Democrats call for removing IRS bank reporting proposal from spending bill Democrats try to back Manchin off killing paid family leave proposal MORE (D-W.Va.) and Angus KingAngus KingBiden to meet House Dems before Europe trip: report Biden administration pushing to include IRS proposal in spending bill despite criticism Lawmakers split on next steps to secure transportation sectors against hackers 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 SandersDemocrats hope to hold Big Oil 'accountable' On The Money — Will the billionaire tax survive Joe Manchin? Democrats cutting paid leave from spending deal amid Manchin opposition MORE (I-Vt.), Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOn The Money — Will the billionaire tax survive Joe Manchin? Patience wears thin as Democrats miss deadlines Crucial talks on Biden agenda enter homestretch MORE (D-Ore.) and Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoPatience wears thin as Democrats miss deadlines Democrats face critical 72 hours Democrats look for plan B on filibuster 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 MurkowskiAnti-Trump Republicans target McCarthy, Scalise, other high-profile conservatives Trump-endorsed candidate leading GOP field to replace Crist in Florida: poll House passes bill to expand workplace protections for nursing mothers 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.”