Energy & Environment

Democrats use vulnerable GOP senators to get rare win on environment

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President Trump’s decision to withdraw his controversial nominee to lead the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is a rare example of Democrats and conservation groups being able to leverage the vulnerability of Republican senators to their advantage.

Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.), whose electoral survival is key to Republicans holding the Senate, had faced rising pressure on whether they would support William Perry Pendley, the de facto head of the agency who has a long history of advocating for selling off public lands.  

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D), who’s in a tight race with Daines, used the pending vote as his latest line of attack, running an ad last week that condemned Pendley and promised to “keep our public lands in Montanans’ hands.”

On Saturday, Trump withdrew the nomination.

Democrats previously had little success in pressuring the administration from backing off its policies or nominees when it comes to the environment, leaving the Pendley case an outlier likely designed to spare tensions for GOP senators in key races.

“President Trump realizes that if Pendley actually had to answer questions about his troubling record through the confirmation process he’d put vulnerable Republicans in the hot seat,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said when the Trump team first acknowledged they would withdraw the nomination.

Nearly every major environmental group in the country as well as the entire Democratic caucus had penned letters to the White House asking for Pendley’s nomination to be withdrawn, citing his controversial comments on climate change, the Black Lives Matter movement and federal ownership of public lands.  

“The letter just made it clear that there was no margin for error on the Republican side. They would not be getting [Sen. Joe] Manchin, they would not be getting any courtesy votes from Democrats. And that made it clear who the swing votes were going to be,” Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, a public lands watchdog group, said of the West Virginia Democrat.

“It’s not like [Interior Secretary] David Bernhardt woke up one morning and realized he had a public lands opponent running the Bureau of Land Management. Clearly the decision to pull down Pendley’s nomination was a political one and not a policy one.”

Gardner and Daines are both facing challenging reelection races, and the White House has been trying to help them.

Trump cited Daines and Gardner in his tweet announcing another rare environmental policy reversal — that rather than gutting funding for the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund, he would back bipartisan legislation, the Great American Outdoors Act, to fund it permanently.

Pendley, who has served in his current post for roughly a year through a series of temporary orders, will remain in his post even after the withdrawal, something Bullock has already challenged through a lawsuit in his capacity as governor. The campaign has accused Pendley, and by proxy Daines, of “undermining Montana’s outdoor way of life.”

Neither the Daines campaign nor his Senate office responded to request for comment.

Gardner has championed the Bureau of Land Management’s move to Colorado with a new headquarters in Grand Junction.

Former bureau employees have repeatedly decried the move as a way to dismantle an agency that can serve as a roadblock to oil development on public lands. As the agency has relocated all but 61 of its Washington-based employees out west, roughly 70 percent of D.C. staffers have left the agency.

When asked for comment on the Pendley withdrawal, Gardner said in a statement to The Hill he would “continue fighting to ensure the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters move to Grand Junction is fully completed and that the future leadership of the BLM will commit to ensuring Colorado remains the home of the BLM headquarters.” 

Democrats are hopeful that with Pendley’s nomination withdrawn, there may be a path to removing him from the bureau entirely.

“The withdrawal of the nomination by the White House shows they know he can’t be confirmed and that he is overwhelmingly opposed. That dynamic hasn’t changed, and their retreat has shown that the strategy is effective. So we are going to keep ratcheting up the pressure until Pendley is removed,” a senior Democratic aide told The Hill. 

But the Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Land Management, says Pendley is here to stay, regardless of political pressure or the lawsuits challenging the legality of his tenure.

“Mr. Pendley continues to lead the Bureau of Land Management as deputy director for programs and policy,” spokesman Ben Goldey said in a statement to The Hill. “There are no issues raised by the Vacancies Reform Act when it comes to the important work Mr. Pendley continues to perform on behalf of the American people.”

Peter Jenkins, a lawyer Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, who sued over Pendley’s lack of a formal nomination prior to Bullock, said nominating and withdrawing him doesn’t change the suit.

“Under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act an acting official could not also be the nominee,” he said, but withdrawing Pendley “goes back to that he was never legally placed in his role to begin with anyway.”

Tags Bureau of Land Management Cory Gardner Donald Trump Interior Department Martin Heinrich Steve Bullock Steve Daines

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