Manchin says he'll vote for Haaland for interior secretary

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Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks during a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on the nomination of Rep. Debra Haaland, D-N.M., to be Secretary of the Interior on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. (Leigh Vogel/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON – Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Wednesday that he will vote for New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland to serve as interior secretary, clearing the way for her likely approval as the first Native American to head a Cabinet agency.

Manchin, a moderate from West Virginia, had been publicly undecided through two days of hearings on Haaland's nomination by President Joe Biden. Manchin caused a political uproar last week by announcing plans to oppose Biden’s choice for budget director, Neera Tanden, a crucial defection that could sink her nomination in the evenly divided Senate.

By contrast, Manchin said Haaland had earned his vote, despite disagreements over drilling on federal lands and the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

“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. “While we do not agree on every issue, she reaffirmed her strong commitment to bipartisanship, addressing the diverse needs of our country and maintaining our nation’s energy independence.''

Haaland's House colleagues on both sides of the aisle, including Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young, praised Haaland's bipartisan accomplishments and “sincere willingness to work collaboratively on important issues,'' Manchin said.

Manchin also said he was pleased that Haaland, during hearings this week, said the Biden administration is committed to continuing to use fossil fuels “for years to come, even as we transition to a cleaner energy future through innovation, not elimination."

Manchin, a longtime coal industry defender, leads a committee that is crucial to Biden’s efforts to address climate change but has expressed skepticism about some of the actions advocates say are needed to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. He has stressed the need to create clean-energy jobs to replace jobs likely to be lost in the transition away from coal, oil and natural gas.

Manchin's announcement came as Republicans denounced Haaland, saying her opposition to fracking, Keystone XL and other issues made her unfit to serve in a role in which she will oversee energy development on vast swaths of federal lands, mostly in the West, as well as offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.

Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican who is not on the energy panel, called Haaland “a neo-socialist, left-of-Lenin whack job.''

While he wants to learn more about her, Kennedy added: “No fair-minded person believes we can power the greatest economy in all of human history ... without oil and gas. And she seems to think that we can. And I think she’s living in la-la land. And I just don’t think that radical approach serves America well.''

Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the senior Republican on the Senate energy panel, said a moratorium imposed by Biden on oil and gas leases on federal lands "is taking a sledgehammer to Western states’ economies.'' The moratorium, which Haaland supports, could cost as many as 33,000 jobs in Wyoming, Barrasso said, with an additional 62,000 workers in Haaland's home state of New Mexico at risk.

Barrasso and other Republicans also bemoaned Biden's rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, saying thousands of jobs will be lost and a friendly source of oil left idle. Haaland said under questioning Wednesday that she supports Biden's decision and stressed that she will be following his agenda at the Interior Department — not her own.

Manchin said he was pleased that Haaland had made clear her commitment to extending a program to clean up abandoned coal mines across the country, including West Virginia.

Several Republican senators, including Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, a former Senate energy chair, have not revealed how they will vote on Haaland's nomination, though it appears likely most Republicans will oppose her.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., called Haaland “a hard-line ideologue with radical views out of touch with Montana and the West.'' He cited her opposition to Keystone XL and statements she made before her nomination calling for a ban on fracking. Daines tangled with Haaland at her confirmation hearing over her previous opposition to trapping on public lands and her support for continued federal protections for grizzly bears.

He asked Haaland why she co-sponsored a bill to continue grizzly bear protections “when the science tells us the bear numbers are well above the recovery targets" set by the Endangered Species Act.

“I imagine, at the time, I was caring about the bears,” Haaland replied. She later said she "would be happy to take a look at that issue” with Daines.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., another former Energy chair, told Haaland he was “all in” for her confirmation and not only would vote yes but would also speak for her on the Senate floor.

“I think you have made the case beyond a doubt that you’ll be there for rural jobs,'' Wyden said. People in the West “want jobs and environmental protection. We see them as two sides of the same coin,'' he added.