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David Bernhardt confirmed as new Interior chief

Congress confirmed David Bernhardt as Interior secretary on Thursday, adding his name to a list of Trump Cabinet officials with lobbying ties.

Bernhardt was confirmed Thursday afternoon in a 56-41 vote with three Democrats and one Independent breaking ranks to vote for him. Sens. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinDemocratic Senate emerges as possible hurdle for progressives  Susan Collins and the American legacy Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein MORE (D-W.Va.), Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichBottom line Senate Democrats demand White House fire controversial head of public lands agency Senate Democrats seek removal of controversial public lands head after nomination withdrawal MORE (D-N.M.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Angus KingAngus KingDemocrats warn GOP will regret Barrett confirmation GOP Senate confirms Trump Supreme Court pick to succeed Ginsburg Senate Democrats hold talkathon to protest Barrett's Supreme Court nomination MORE (I-Maine) voted in favor of his confirmation.

Manchin, the top Democrat of the Senate committee that oversees Interior, welcomed Bernhardt's confirmation Thursday, saying he was more than qualified for the job

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"I believe Mr. Bernhardt is clearly qualified to serve as secretary," Manchin said during a floor speech. "He knows the Interior Department inside and out and he is well versed on all the issues that come before it. He clearly has the knowledge and experiences to serve as secretary."

Republicans also cheered the confirmation, adding that Bernhardt's policy chops would be very useful at the Interior Department.

“I think he’s got more experience than just about anybody who has been named to this position and he’s ready to go,” Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiHarris blasts GOP for confirming Amy Coney Barrett: 'We won't forget this' GOP Senate confirms Trump Supreme Court pick to succeed Ginsburg Murkowski predicts Barrett won't overturn Roe v. Wade MORE (R-Alaska) told reporters, brushing off concerns that Bernhardt's past lobbying would influence his future work. “There’s nothing new that is out there, there are new stories on old facts. We’ve heard the same comments from the same critics.”

Bernhardt has worked at Interior in many capacities, including solicitor during the George W. Bush administration. He has also had multiple stints at the lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, LLP, representing various energy clients including Eni petroleum, Sempra Energy, Halliburton Energy Services, Targa energy, Noble Energy and the Westlands Water District.

Under ethics rules, Bernhardt has had to recuse himself from meeting with a number of former clients.

His conflicts of interest are so vast he carries with him a card listing the names of all companies that would conflict with his government work. Democrats have repeatedly raised questions about decisions Bernhardt has made as deputy and acting director that benefit former clients. 

Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerGOP cool to White House's .6T coronavirus price tag Romney calls first Trump-Biden debate 'an embarrassment' Netflix distances from author's comments about Muslim Uyghurs but defends project MORE (R-N.D.) downplayed Bernhardt’s previous lobbyist career, saying that in itself it wasn’t a conflict of interest.

“I’m tired of Democrats considering people having opinions or previous lives as a conflict of interest. They want everyone to have been robots or something. I think that his background is actually what equips him for it,” Cramer said. “If they’ve been involved in an issue like he has from all sides, I find that as an asset. But I don’t think it’s a conflict because you used to do something.”

Bernhardt’s confirmation Thursday means he will now oversee about 500 million acres of publicly owned land as well as the energy production on that land and offshore.

Democrats and environmentalists have taken issue with Bernhardt’s lobbying ties as well as policies he’s helped draft as Interior deputy secretary that appear to benefit some former clients.

“His predecessor Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith Zinke5 major ways that Interior slashed protections for wildlife  Trump extends Florida offshore drilling pause, expands it to Georgia, South Carolina Conspicuous by their absence from the Republican Convention MORE left in an ethical hurricane and if you add up all the members of Congress who have made all of these inquiries to the inspector general, I think it’s pretty clear there are a lot of members who think another ethical storm is headed this way,” Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenPlaintiff and defendant from Obergefell v. Hodges unite to oppose Barrett's confirmation Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing House Democrats slam FCC chairman over 'blatant attempt to help' Trump MORE (D-Ore.) told reporters Wednesday.

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One issue under the microscope includes a February report by The New York Times that Bernhardt helped push a specific Endangered Species Act (ESA) policy related to California’s delta smelt that will directly benefit a former client of his.

Bernhardt previously worked for a group of California farmers who opposed protections on the finger-sized fish in order to gain access to more irrigation water in the state’s central valley. Since working at Interior, Bernhardt has been hard at work to strip those protections, according to the Times.

He’s also came under fire for playing a role in suppressing a Fish and Wildlife Service report that found two pesticides used widely by farmers were extremely detrimental to various endangered species. Bernhardt’s role in deciding to withhold the findings of the report came out through a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA). He defended the decision to lawmakers during his confirmation hearing, saying the decision was made in conjunction with Interior’s lawyers.

Democratic lawmakers have since asked Interior’s inspector general to investigate the potential ethics violations.

“The question really becomes: Has he already broken the law?” Wyden said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “My bottom line is that the Senate ought to take the time to actually look into that issue.”

More than 50 Democratic House members Wednesday signed a letter asking their colleagues in the upper chamber to oppose Bernhardt’s nomination as secretary.

In the letter, Rep. A. Donald McEachinAston (Donale) Donald McEachinOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden pledges carbon-free power by 2035 in T environment plan | Trump administration has been underestimating costs of carbon pollution, government watchdog finds | Trump to move forward with rollback of bedrock environmental law Trump to move forward with rollback of bedrock environmental law Sanders-Biden climate task force calls for carbon-free power by 2035 MORE (D-Va.) warned that Bernhardt had a “lengthy record” of advancing corporate interests at the environment’s expense.

“As our climate crisis only grows in urgency and magnitude, it is more important than ever that we have a secretary who will defend and protect our natural resources and wildlife, not someone who will advance policies that destroy our environment,” he wrote.

In another letter, 14 Senate Democrats asked Bernhardt to reverse actions that limit public comment periods when the department considers new oil and gas leases.

Bernhardt is poised to oversee Interior’s lingering plan to expand offshore drilling in the Atlantic. The plan has been opposed by nearly every government official representing a coastal state.

Maine Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsHouse Judiciary Republicans mockingly tweet 'Happy Birthday' to Hillary Clinton after Barrett confirmation Barrett sworn in as Supreme Court justice by Thomas Roberts to administer judicial oath to Barrett Tuesday MORE (R) and King said they each voted in favor of Bernhardt's nomination after receiving assurances from him that their state would not be open to his offshore drilling plan.

"They’re not guarantees but he gave me some assurances that lead me to a place where I felt like I could responsibly vote for him," said King, who broke ranks with Democrats.

Collins said she waited to make her decision until she got a letter from Bernhardt late Wednesday answering her questions.

"It was instrumental in my vote. It was a reassuring letter in which he said that the position of the governor, the congressional delegation, and the legislature would be a determining factor and he recognized the coastal management act and the impact that that would have and that it's binding on the Department," Collins told The Hill on Thursday. "I do not believe we will see offshore drilling off the state of Maine."

While Bernhardt told Senators during his confirmation hearing that the plan was still in its very early stages, he indicated it would be forthcoming.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump admin to announce coronavirus vaccine will be covered under Medicare, Medicaid: report Election officials say they're getting suspicious emails that may be part of malicious attack on voting: report McConnell tees up Trump judicial pick following Supreme Court vote MORE has long asked for new sources of U.S. energy extraction a part of his push for energy independence.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler has also faced criticism over his past lobbying ties. Wheeler previously worked as a lobbyist in the energy and natural resources sector for nearly a decade at law firm Faegre Baker Daniels. He was confirmed by the Senate in late February.