Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Joe Manchin, a key moderate Democrat from West Virginia, announced Wednesday that he will vote to confirm Deb Haaland, President Joe Biden’s pick to be Interior secretary.
The announcement is a boost to the nomination and follows Haaland’s two days of testimony during confirmation hearings before the committee.
“I believe Deb Haaland will be a Secretary of the Interior for every American and will vote to confirm her,” Manchin said in a statement. “I look forward to working with her to protect our public lands and ensure the responsible use of all our natural resources in a bipartisan manner.”
Democrats have zero margin of error in the Senate with a 50-50 partisan split and Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie breaker. Manchin’s opposition to Neera Tanden, Biden’s pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, has put the nomination in major jeopardy and it is now unclear if she will have the votes to be confirmed. Manchin’s decision to support Haaland, in contrast, may now pave the way for her successful confirmation as Interior secretary.
Haaland had defended her record earlier Wednesday during her confirmation hearing as Republicans grilled her over past statements and painted her as partisan and liberal.
The Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico, who would be the first Native American Cabinet secretary if confirmed by the Senate, pledged to work in service of the Biden administration during the first day of the hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday. But Republicans on the panel expressed concern over her nomination and described her views on public land use and fossil fuels as radical.
During the second day of hearings, Haaland argued that her role as interior secretary would be very different from her role as an elected member of the House of Representatives.
“The role of a congresswoman in one district in the country is much different than the role of a secretary who is fighting and working for every single American and all of our public lands across the country. Those are two different things, I recognize that,” Haaland said.
The assertion came after Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the ranking Republican member on the committee, confronted Haaland over past statements she has made, including that she is “wholeheartedly against fracking and drilling on public lands.” After Barrasso brought up the past comments, he said the committee wants to know how Haaland would advise Biden as President if confirmed.
GOP Sen. Steve Daines of Montana later expressed skepticism over Haaland’s argument that she would make a distinction between the different roles — arguing that positions she has taken as a congresswoman would impact Americans outside of her district.
“Some of your prior positions you’ve taken,” he said, “clearly impacts more people than just your constituents. So I’m not convinced that you’ll be taking that view forward because you’ve certainly been taking some very strong positions that clearly impact folks outside the first district of New Mexico.”
Republicans have repeatedly argued that the Biden administration is going to kill jobs through its clean energy agenda, which Haaland supports. If confirmed, Haaland would be part of Biden’s plan to tackle the climate crisis and reduce carbon emissions.
In her opening statement, Haaland attempted to strike a delicate balance on energy and environmental policy, saying, “There’s no question that fossil energy does and will continue to play a major role in America for years to come.” But, she added, “Our climate challenge must be addressed,” and she contended that “the Department has a role in harnessing the clean energy potential of our public lands to create jobs and new economic opportunities.”
Barrasso said Tuesday that he feels “troubled” by some of Haaland’s positions on climate and energy issues, while Daines said he is “concerned” about proceeding with the nomination.
In one contentious exchange Tuesday, Barrasso asked Haaland to answer for a tweet from October 2020 in which she said that Republicans don’t believe in science. The GOP senator pointed out that he and several other Republican members of the committee are medical doctors and called the remark “concerning.”
“Senator, yes, if you’re a doctor, I would assume that you believe in science,” Haaland replied.
Haaland has repeatedly declined to give her personal opinions in the face of pointed questions from Republican senators during the hearing, saying instead that she would carry out Biden’s agenda.
When Daines asked Haaland if she supports a ban on fracking and no new pipelines, she replied, “President Biden does not support a ban on fracking is my understanding.” When the GOP senator pressed again, Haaland said, “If I am confirmed as secretary, I would be serving at the pleasure of the President and it would be his agenda that I would move forward.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, Republican Sen. James Risch of Idaho repeatedly pressed Haaland on whether she supports the Biden administration’s decision to shut down the Keystone XL pipeline. Haaland first responded by saying she supports Biden’s decision to revoke the pipeline’s permit.
“I feel very confident that the President, his decision — I mean I have to respect it, sir. He is the President of the United States,” Haaland replied.
Risch followed up several times asking directly if she supports shutting down the pipeline. Haaland finally answered, “Senator, if I say that I support President Biden’s agenda, I assume that you could take my answer as a yes.”
Manchin said during Tuesday’s hearing that he believes a president deserves “wide latitude” in the selection of his Cabinet nominees, but added, “I also take the Senate’s constitutional obligation to advise and consent to the President’s nomination seriously.”
On Wednesday, Manchin thanked Haaland for returning for a second day of questioning and for “being so diligent and doing such a good job.”
“I just want to thank you for coming back and being so diligent and doing such a good job. I really appreciate that, Congresswoman Haaland, very much,” he said.
During the hearings, Haaland has discussed the historic nature of her nomination during the confirmation hearings and addressed her motivation to do the job.
On Wednesday, Haaland said of her motivation: “This is all of our country, this is our mother. You’ve heard the Earth referred to Mother Earth.”
She went on to say, “It’s difficult to not feel obligated to protect this land, and I feel that every Indigenous person in this country understands that, which is why we have such a high rate of our people who serve in the military. We want to protect this country, and that means protecting it in every single way.”
This story and headline have been updated Wednesday with additional developments.