Senate confirms Bernhardt to head Interior
The Senate confirmed David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist and Interior Department veteran, to serve as the agency’s 53rd secretary by a 56-41 vote on Thursday, rejecting ethics concerns raised by Democrats.
Four members of the Democratic caucus — Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Martin Heinrich (N.M.), Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and Angus King (I-Maine) — joined with the unified Republican bloc to support Bernhardt’s confirmation.
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“There are few others who have the kinds of experience that he has that qualify him for Interior,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said on the floor Thursday. “I’m thankful there are qualified people out there like Mr. Bernhardt and his family who are still willing to wade through the muck and serve the people of the United States knowing they will be called a liar.”
Bernhardt, currently acting secretary, will replace Ryan Zinke, who left Interior in January in the midst of several ongoing ethical investigations.
Bernhardt won bipartisan backing from the chamber despite concerns that he has conflicts of interests related to past lobbying clients, criticism that he failed to keep adequate records, and worries about the department’s plans to expand offshore drilling along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Florida Republicans Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott voted in favor of Bernhardt after expressing confidence the state’s coasts would not be opened to drilling, though they received no concrete public assurances along those lines.
Some Democrats accused Republicans of failing to put the public interest ahead of industry’s desire to access federal property.
“I would remind all my colleagues on the Atlantic Coast that, again, I asked him to at least commit that he wouldn’t do drilling off the shore of states that didn’t want drilling off their shores. He would not commit to that,” Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the floor. “It’s hard to imagine someone whose background is so at odds with the department’s mission than Mr. Bernhardt’s.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told POLITICO she decided to back Bernhardt after receiving written assurances about his plans concerning offshore drilling.
“I exchanged correspondence with him on the issue that is of most concern to me, which is I do not want to see offshore drilling off the coast of Maine,” she said. “I’m very satisfied with his responses on that.”
Bernhardt served as the solicitor of Interior during the George W. Bush administration, but subsequent lobbying and legal work on behalf of fossil fuel and water interests have drawn heavy scrutiny. He joined the Trump administration as deputy secretary in August 2017 upon confirmation by the Senate.
Thursday’s approval by the Senate won’t quell Democratic concerns over Bernhardt’s transparency and conflicts of interest. Multiple lawmakers have demanded an investigation into his role in blocking the release of a study examining a pesticides impact on endangered species.
Over in the House, Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) told POLITICO last week he wants Bernhardt to testify “as soon as” possible upon confirmation and last week requested a host of documents from Bernhardt’s former lobbying client about their coordination on endangered species issues.
House Democrats have also demanded Interior cooperate in an ongoing GAO probe related to that prior client, Westlands Water District, raised questions about compliance with record keeping requirements and sought a copy of the department’s reorganization plan in recent days.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said the burden would be especially high on those in his party who supported Bernhardt’s nomination.
“The Democrats who support him, they do so somewhat at their own peril,” he told reporters. “If I vote for somebody … I made sure that I knew how to reach them and that they’d be responsive, and I hope that will be the case with those that vote for him today.”