Editors note: For International Women’s Day (March 8), Post Alley features an overview of recent progress by women in national politics and the fights for Neera Tanden and Deb Haaland in Joe Biden’s cabinet.
For the first time since George Washington assembled his Cabinet 230 years ago, the highest council of government leaders is likely to soon include a voice from the Native American community and a female advocate for the nation’s public lands and tribal relations.
U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the Department of Interior, is a 35th generation New Mexican whose ancestors of the Laguna Pueblo tribe predated European claims to have discovered America by more than two centuries.
Haaland’s confirmation hearings have become a forum for the intensifying battle between conservatives intent on protecting their states’ fossil-fuel industries and Biden administration proponents of swifter conversion to clean renewables to ward off the perils of climate change.
Her interrogation by members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last month also reflected the discomfort of mostly older white men forced to negotiate with confident women and minorities in a new administration committed to diversity and inclusion.
Haaland faced contentious questioning from Republican senators from states with heavy dependence on oil and gas extraction about her opposition to pipeline projects intruding through hallowed tribal land and for her support of the ambitious Green New Deal.
Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Steve Daines of Montana called her a “radical” and warned she would try to roll back extraction and exploration permits, killing tens of thousands of jobs in their states.
Haaland’s participation in protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline before she was elected to Congress in 2018 came under fire from Sen. John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican, who called on her to recuse herself from matters involving the pipeline that runs 1,200 miles from his state to Illinois.
Poised and respectful, Haaland assured him she would rely on the advice of Interior Department lawyers on how to handle any perceived conflicts. She defended her participation in the pipeline protests as concern over the project’s failure to properly consult with the tribe whose land it traverses.
“We absolutely should make sure that we are consulting with tribes if in fact these projects do affect their lands, their sacred sites and the like,” she stated.
Barrasso and Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, scolded Haaland for a tweet she issued last fall saying “Republicans don’t believe in science,” after GOP candidates questioned whether climate change is happening or whether it is caused by humans.
At least three Republican senators on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee – Mike Lee of Utah, James Lankford of Oklahoma and John Marshall of Kansas – have made public declarations that climate change is a myth or that it is a naturally recurring cycle.
The committee voted 11-9 on Thursday to approve Haaland’s appointment and sent it on for a vote by the full Senate, expected later this month. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski was the only Republican to vote in favor of Haaland’s confirmation.
While Biden’s Cabinet nominees have been slow to clear the evenly divided Senate, his appointments to positions that don’t require Senate confirmation has created an Interior Department infrastructure already at work to counteract many of the regulatory rollbacks of the Trump administration.
On Inauguration Day, Biden issued an executive order for a 60-day review of the former president’s removal of protections for the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments to open them for uranium mining, oil and gas drilling and construction. The Natural Resources Defense Council sued and won an effective stay on development that could harm the cultural and ecological features of the vast territory that is ancestral homeland to Navajo, Ute, Hopi and Pueblo tribes.
Utah’s Lee complained at Haaland’s committee hearing that the thwarted extraction and construction projects were “impoverishing” the people of his district.
Lee has been the recipient of $366,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas lobbies during his Senate tenure, according to the findings of an investigation by the British newspaper The Guardian and the Center for Media and Democracy. The report also noted Barrasso has accepted $1.2 million in donations from fossil-fuel interests, Daines $288,500 and Cassidy $1.7 million.
As Interior Secretary, Haaland would preside over the conservation and management of public lands and coastal waters, about 20% of U.S. territory. The department with 70,000 employees is responsible for protecting natural resources, cultural heritage and overseeing the government’s relationships with the nation’s 574 recognized tribes.
Haaland’s confirmation is expected by the full Senate, now that at least two Republicans – Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Alaska’s Murkowski — have announced they will vote for her. Conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, on the fence earlier in the confirmation process, announced at the committee vote that he has overcome earlier concerns that his state’s mining industries might be adversely affected under the progressive nominee.
“Two hundred and thirty years after Washington called his first Cabinet meeting,” Manchin said, “it is long past time to give a Native American woman a seat on the Cabinet table.”