Representative Debra Haaland, a Democrat from New Mexico and a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, introduced 13 bills with bipartisan cosponsors in 2019. Dozens of lawmakers, some of them Republicans, say she is a good collaborator and an excellent champion of public lands. She has a 98 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, a mainstream environmental advocacy group. When President Joe Biden tapped her to lead the Department of the Interior, environmental groups, environmental justice advocates, and tribes rejoiced. Haaland will become the first Native American Cabinet secretary in U.S. history if the Senate confirms her.
“I would suggest respectfully you’ll find out that she will listen to you,” Republican Don Young, a representative from Alaska, told senators at Haaland’s confirmation hearing on Tuesday, urging them to support her nomination. If nothing else, he said, a president has the right to pick his “crew.”
But not everyone is on board with her confirmation. Haaland faced intense scrutiny from both Republicans and Democrats over her record this week. Senate hearings for Biden’s other nominees so far, including Pete Buttigieg and Janet Yellen, have largely sounded like what they are: job interviews. Haaland’s hearing resembled a cross-examination at times. Republicans kept circling back to one central argument: Haaland was too “radical” to lead the Department of the Interior. Senators also said she was “extreme,” noted that they were “troubled” and “concerned” about her nomination, and said her views will hurt an American “way of life.”
“I’m not convinced the Congresswoman can divorce her radical views and represent what’s best for Montana and all stakeholders in the West,” Republican Senator Steve Daines of Montana wrote in a statement ahead of the hearing. On Tuesday, Senator John Barrasso from Wyoming said Haaland’s views on oil and gas leasing were “squarely at odds with the responsible management” of public lands. Some House Republicans are aligned with these senators in their opposition to Haaland. In January, 15 House Republicans sent Biden a letter asking him to withdraw her nomination, which they called “a direct threat to working men and women and a rejection of responsible development of America’s natural resources.”
The main issue for some Republicans and even one centrist Democrat — Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chair Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who didn’t indicate that he would support Haaland’s nomination until Wednesday — is that Haaland has condemned fracking on public lands and has supported sweeping climate measures such as the Green New Deal resolution introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York and Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts. At Interior, Haaland will be in charge of administering Biden’s moratorium on new oil and gas leases on public lands. Haaland spent much of her speaking time at her hearings this week assuring senators that she wouldn’t let her personal views govern her decisions as the head of Interior. Her role, she said, is to “serve all Americans, not just my one district in New Mexico.”
Still, Republicans aren’t convinced. Before her hearing even began, Daines promised to block Haaland’s confirmation by placing something a hold on her nomination, which would force extra voting and generally slow down the confirmation process, and he has not signaled that he intends to drop the issue. Barrasso hasn’t said he’ll put a hold on Haaland’s nomination, but he’s signaled he’ll vote against her. “If Representative Haaland intends to use the Department of the Interior to crush the economy of Wyoming and other western states, then I’m going to oppose the nomination,” the Senator from Wyoming said during his opening remarks.
For some Indigenous environmental advocates and Democrats, the opposition to Haaland’s nomination smacks of racism and a resistance to progress.
“She is a Brown, traditional Indigenous woman who cares about the land and future generations,” Ashley McCray, a member of the Absentee Shawnee and Oglala Lakota nations and an organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, told Grist. “At the foundation of that, she is unsettling settler colonialism which is really what the United States government is.”
Julia Bernal, an enrolled member of the Sandia Pueblo tribe and environmental justice director at the Pueblo Action Alliance, a Pueblo community organization in New Mexico, told Grist that Haaland’s nomination and her identity as a Native American woman threatens the status quo in Washington D.C. “People in general are afraid of change,” she said.
In a USA Today opinion piece published on Tuesday, Mark Udall and Tom Udall, former U.S. senators from Colorado and New Mexico, respectively, wrote that the criticism of Haaland has been spurred by “something other than her record.”
“Were either of us the nominee to lead the Interior Department, we doubt that anyone would be threatening to hold up the nomination or wage a scorched earth campaign warning about ‘radical’ ideas,” the Udalls, who are first cousins, wrote. “Her record is in line with mainstream conservation priorities.”
Instead of badgering Haaland with questions about her “radical” views, Bernal wishes senators had spent more time asking her about how she would direct the Department of Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to consult with tribes. “There are a lot of issues that remain with how land has been managed” in the U.S., Bernal said, citing broken treaties and erasure of Indigenous perspectives throughout U.S. history.
Daines, the most outspoken critic of Haaland’s record, asked Haaland a total of 18 questions during his allotted speaking time on Tuesday. He only asked Trump’s Interior Department appointees, Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt, a couple of questions apiece, according to HuffPost environmental reporter Chris D’Angelo, who compiled a list of the senators’ questions. Not one of Daines’ 18 questions for Haaland was about how she would support tribes as secretary of the Interior. Bernie Sanders, a Democrat from Vermont, did ask Haaland how the government could “help make Indian lives better.” “It’s the job of the federal government to live up to its tribal trust promises,” Haaland said.
Despite Republican opposition, Democrats likely have the votes they need to approve Haaland’s nomination. But Daines’s block will compound Haaland’s already delayed confirmation process. Biden’s nominee is on track to begin her tenure as head of the Interior later than any other president’s first Interior secretary in modern history.