Representative Deb Haaland, who would make history as the first Native American woman to lead a Cabinet agency, was rounded on by some Republicans at her confirmation hearing for Interior Secretary, and accused of “divisiveness”.
The progressive Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico, who has fought for climate justice, indigenous rights, and voiced opposition to the extractive drilling method of fracking, faced pointed questioning before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday.
As Interior Secretary, Rep Haaland would oversee energy development on federal lands, along with their restoration and protection, while having significant responsibility for hundreds of tribes.
“The historic nature of my confirmation is not lost on me, but I will say that it is not about me,″ Rep Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, said in opening remarks.
”Rather, I hope this nomination would be an inspiration for Americans — moving forward together as one nation and creating opportunities for all of us.″
She listed priorities of increasing clean energy jobs, improving broadband internet in rural areas and bringing attention to the high rates of missing and murdered indigenous women.
Steve Daines, a Republican senator from Montana, said he was “concerned” about her nomination because she has supported moving away from fossil fuels in favour of renewables to combat the climate crisis.
Rep Haaland told the senator that President Biden intended to create millions of “green energy jobs”.
Senator Daines said: “The track record and the ideology and the past, I think, will perpetuate more divisiveness and will certainly harm Montana’s economy. And that’s why I have some concerns.”
During the hearing he questioned her opposition to the oil industry and why she had co-sponsored a bill creating longtime protections for grizzly bears.
“Senator, I believe I was caring about the bears,” she replied. #bearsfordeb almost immediately appeared as a Twitter hashtag.
Rep Haaland said that she aimed to “strike the right balance” at the Department of Interior. She noted that oil and gas will continue to play a role but underlined that President Biden’s agenda, including his call for a Civilian Climate Corps, “demonstrates that America’s public lands can and should be engines for clean energy production” and have “the potential to spur job creation”.
Her remarks were intended to rebut criticism from some Republicans who claim that the Biden administration is killing jobs and harming economies, largely in western states. The Biden administration has set a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Moderate Democrat Senator Joe Manchin, from coal-heavy West Virginia, has refused to commit on Rep Haaland’s nomination.
But she received Republican support from some quarters. Don Young, a Republican congressman from Alaska, introduced her and underlined her bipartisan record as why she should be confirmed.
“I think she is a friend and as a member of this administration she’ll do a good job. She’ll work for us, and she’ll reach across the aisle,” Rep. Young said.
Rep Haaland spoke of her childhood during the hearing. Her mother is a Navy veteran and worked for more than two decades at the Bureau of Indian Education, an Interior Department agency. Her father was a Marine who served in Vietnam. He received the Silver Star and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
“As a military family, we moved every few years when I was a kid, but no matter where we lived, my dad taught me and my siblings to appreciate nature, whether on a mountain trail or walking along the beach,″ Rep Haaland said. She also pointed to her sister’s marriage to a rancher to illustrate her understanding of rural working communities.
She often speaks about her experiences of being unemployed and a single mother, along with the teachings of her ancestors as a reminder that action the US takes on climate change, the environment and sacred sites will affect generations to come.
Some Native Americans see Rep Haaland’s nomination as the best chance to move from consultation on tribal issues to consent and to put more land into the hands of tribal nations either outright or through stewardship agreements.
Her progressive record and previous opposition to actions of the Trump administration provided ammunition for several Republican committee members.
Wyoming Senator John Barrasso dialled in on Rep Haaland’s tweets including one from October where she said that Republicans don’t believe in science. Sen Barrasso pointed out he was an orthopaedic surgeon, and that several other physicians serve on the committee.
“Do you think that as medical doctors we don’t believe in science? How do you stand by this statement?” he asked.
In an interview before the hearing, Sen Daines accused Rep Haaland of having “radical views”.
“Her record speaks for itself. She’s a die-hard, far-left ideologue,” Mr Daines said.
Some Native American advocates called the description of Haaland as “radical” a loaded reference to her tribal status.
“That kind of language is sort of a dog whistle for certain folks that see somebody who is an Indigenous woman potentially being in a position of power,” Ta’jin Perez with the group Western Native Voice told the AP. “Folks to some degree are afraid of change.”
Sen Daines called the notion of racial overtones in his remarks outrageous.
National civil rights groups have joined forces with tribal leaders and environmental groups in supporting the congresswoman’s nomination.
“Being the first Indigenous person to head the DOI, and second in a Cabinet position, will inspire and provide hope, not only to the Indigenous Peoples of this land, but to all who have vision for the future,” the Indigenous Environmental Network tweeted ahead of the hearing.
A letter signed by nearly 500 national and regional organisations representing Native Americans, environmental justice groups and outdoor businesses called Rep Haaland “a proven leader and the right person to lead the charge against the existential threats of our time: tackling the climate, biodiversity, extinction and COVID-19 crises and racial justice inequities on our federal public lands and waters.”
AP contributed to this report