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) ManchinSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial McConnell: I doubt any GOP senator will vote to impeach Trump Manchin warns he'll slow-walk government funding bill until he gets deal on miners legislation MORE (D-W.Va.), Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichSenators want FERC to protect critical infrastructure from Huawei threats Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics This week: House to vote on Turkey sanctions bill MORE (D-N.M.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Angus KingAngus KingHillicon Valley: Pentagon pushes back on Amazon lawsuit | Lawmakers dismiss Chinese threat to US tech companies | YouTube unveils new anti-harassment policy | Agencies get annual IT grades Legislation to protect electric grid from cyberattacks added to massive defense bill Lawmakers dismiss Chinese retaliatory threat to US tech 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 MurkowskiThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday Senate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial McConnell: I doubt any GOP senator will vote to impeach Trump 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 CramerOn The Money: Lawmakers strike spending deal | US, China reach limited trade deal ahead of tariff deadline | Lighthizer fails to quell GOP angst over new NAFTA Lighthizer fails to quell GOP angst on trade deal Republicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial 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 ZinkeOvernight Energy: House Science Committee hits EPA with subpoenas | California sues EPA over Trump revoking emissions waiver | Interior disbands board that floated privatization at national parks Interior disbands advisory board that floated privatization at national parks Overnight Energy: Senate eyes nixing 'forever chemicals' fix from defense bill | Former Obama EPA chief named CEO of green group | Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics 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 WydenThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday Senators zero in on shadowy court at center of IG report Trump administration approves Medicaid work requirements in South Carolina 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 McEachinVirginia National Guard responds after Democratic lawmaker suggests it may be needed to enforce gun control measures Democrats unveil first bill toward goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to testify on Libra | Extremists find home on Telegram app | Warren blasts Facebook for not removing anti-Biden ad | California outlaws facial recognition in police body cameras | China rips US tech sanctions 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 CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by AdvaMed — House panel delays impeachment vote until Friday Senate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial McConnell: I doubt any GOP senator will vote to impeach Trump 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 TrumpDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Trump scramble to rack up accomplishments gives conservatives heartburn Seven years after Sandy Hook, the politics of guns has changed 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.