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Senate Democrats demand White House fire controversial head of public lands agency

Senate Democrats demand White House fire controversial head of public lands agency
© Courtesy Department of Interior

Senate Democrats continued their pressure campaign on the White House on Tuesday, taking to the floor to ask 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 to immediately remove the controversial acting head of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from his post.

The speeches were focused on William Perry Pendley, the de facto head of the public lands agency who has long opposed federal ownership of them.

Though his nomination was withdrawn earlier this month after a letter of opposition from the entire Democratic caucus showed Republicans they had little wiggle room for a vote, Pendley remains in office through a series of orders being challenged in two different lawsuits.

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“Let's get one thing straight. This title has no basis in law. He's serving as acting BLM director under temporary appointments that the Secretary [of Interior] keeps renewing in a cynical ploy to evade the Constitution, the Federal Vacancies Reform Act and the judgment of the Senate,” said Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Judge tosses land management plans after ousting Pendley from role | Trump says he could out-raise Biden with calls to Wall Street, oil execs | Supreme Court to review Trump border wall funding, asylum policies OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Pendley says court decision ousting him from BLM has had 'no impact' | Court strikes down Obama-era rule targeting methane leaks from public lands drilling | Feds sued over no longer allowing polluters to pay for environmental projects  Pendley says court decision ousting him from BLM has had 'no impact' MORE (D-N.M.), a vocal critic of Pendley’s.

“Mr. Pendley’s record on conservation is so bad, so antithetical to the agency he oversees the Trump administration knew he wouldn't survive a Senate confirmation. So instead, they've concocted this shell game," Udall continued.

Pendley has come under fire for a number of comments and articles. He’s compared climate change to unicorns to highlight that he doesn’t believe it exists. He’s criticized the Black Lives Matter movement. He has a long history fighting federal government oversight of public lands, penning books with the titles “War on the West: Government Tyranny on America’s Frontier” and “Warriors for the West: Fighting Bureaucrats, Radical Groups, and Liberal Judges on America’s Frontier.” 

Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetSenate Democrats hold talkathon to protest Barrett's Supreme Court nomination Cotton mocks NY Times over claim of nonpartisanship, promises to submit op-eds as test Democrats sense momentum for expanding child tax credit MORE (D-Colo.) said “asking someone like that to manage our public lands ... is like asking somebody be Secretary of Education who doesn't believe in public education,” taking a jab at Education Secretary Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosHouse committee subpoenas Education Department staff over for-profit colleges DeVos says it isn't Department of Education's job to track schools' coronavirus reopening plans Judge calls Devos student loan forgiveness process 'disturbingly Kafkaesque' MORE.

Efforts by Democrats to get the White House to withdraw Pendley’s nomination came as environmental groups ran ads questioning the conservation credentials of Sens. Cory Garnder (R-Colo.) and Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesDemocrat trails by 3 points in Montana Senate race: poll Poll shows statistical tie in Montana Senate race Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid MORE (R-Mont.), both of whom face tight reelection races.

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“I have to imagine there were senators on the other side of the aisle who said, ‘Sen. McConnell, please don't make us take this vote, please. I've got a tough election coming up. Don't make me take this vote, Mr. President, I'm scared to take this vote.’ And as a result they withdrew his nomination. Because it couldn't pass the Senate,” Bennet said. 

“What’s incredibly unusual in this case is they left him in his job,” he continued, saying Pendley should be removed if he can’t garner enough Senate support.

Sen. 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.) said the Senate needs to be vigilant about next steps as an important check and balance on power.

“President Trump has shown that he's willing to circumvent Congress and skip the constitutionally required confirmation process for other key federal leadership posts by illegally placing people into unofficial and indefinite acting roles,” he said. “Forcing the Trump administration to withdraw the Pendley nomination was only half the battle.”

The Trump administration has repeatedly said Pendley will remain on the job, despite lawsuits from Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockInterior says Pendley to remain at BLM despite 'dramatic tweets' from Democrats Democrat trails by 3 points in Montana Senate race: poll Poll shows statistical tie in Montana Senate race MORE (D) and environmental groups challenging the legality of the repeated orders that have been used to justify keeping Pendley in office.

“This is a purely political and lowly attack on a dedicated public servant and veteran Marine. Mr. Pendley has led the Bureau of Land Management with distinction and will continue to lead the Bureau as Deputy Director for Policy and Programs,” Interior Department spokesman Connor Swanson said in an email, using Pendley’s official title.  

The White House did not respond to request for comment.

Sen. 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.), like other Democrats, has repeatedly cast Pendley as “the wrong person for the wrong job at the wrong place.”

“He’s spent most of his adult life arguing against the principles upon which our federal land management policy is based. He’s called for the sale of the public lands of the BLM is responsible for retaining and managing. He’s called for the repeal the Antiquities Act, upon which our national monuments were founded,” Manchin said on the floor.

“He’s denigrated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act — the bedrock environmental laws that the bureau must operate under," he added. "He cannot be a good steward of the public domain if he does not believe the public should have domain, and he rejects the laws designed to preserve and protect it.”