WASHINGTON—U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland made history on Monday when she became the first Native American to ever be confirmed by the U.S. Senate to hold a position in a president’s Cabinet.
In a narrow 51-40 vote, senators confirmed Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat, to serve as secretary of Interior, where she will run a $21 billion agency that manages more than 450 million acres of public lands—as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
She was backed by four Republican senators — Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine, and Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior,” Haaland tweeted when she was picked by then President-elect Joe Biden in December. “Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me fierce. I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.”
Biden’s early moves on energy and environmental policy — including scrapping the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline, freezing new leases for oil and gas development on federal lands and pledging to protect 30% of U.S. land and water by 2030 — made Haaland a big target for Republican members who disagree with the administration’s actions.
Her nomination was marked by repeated attacks from Republican senators, including Montana Sen. Steve Daines, who labeled her as a “far-left ideologue” too “radical” for the position.
“Rep. Haaland’s hostile, divisive policies don’t represent the mainstream views held by most Montanans,” Daines tweeted last week.
Another Senate Republican, John Kennedy of Louisiana, called Haaland a “neo-socialist, left-of-Lenin whack job,” though he later apologized, and said he was searching for another word, POLITICO reported.
The tide of disapproval ran the risk of alienating Native Americans in Western states, and Democrats said that the same things haven’t been said about the administration’s White male nominees.
“I think we need to be honest with ourselves about what is going on here,” Sen. Tina Smith, a Minnesota Democrat, said on the floor Monday just before the vote. “Once again a woman, and a woman of color, is being held to a different standard and we need to name it. We have to come to grips with the reality. Time after time, strong women, and especially women of color, are attacked, when White men with the same views are welcomed to walk right through that door.”
Smith said that Haaland holds the same policy stances as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, yet neither was attacked the same way.
“This is clear when we see how few Republicans could even acknowledge the historic nature of Representative Haaland’s nomination, choosing instead to focus on hostile questions about her tweets and whether she understands the law,” said Smith.
Democrats Tom Udall of New Mexico and Mark Udall of Colorado, both former U.S. senators, wrote in USA Today that “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.”
Haaland, 60, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna and 35th-generation New Mexican, was first elected to the House in 2018 after winning a six-candidate Democratic primary in the heavily Democratic 1st Congressional District in New Mexico. She is one of four Native Americans serving in the House.
She is a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, where she chairs the panel’s Natural Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee. Haaland is expected to resign her seat after her confirmation and a special election will be scheduled.
Haaland went through one of the rockiest confirmation hearings so far for any of Biden’s nominees, where for two days she was challenged by Republican senators from the West who probed her positions on Biden administration energy policies and more.
Through bureaus and offices including the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Interior Department sets and enforces federal land use, environmental and tribal policies, including oil and gas leasing on public lands. The BLM is headquartered in Colorado.
Daines questioned Haaland’s support of legislation that would reintroduce grizzly bears to tribal lands, and after the hearing he put a hold on Haaland’s nomination, along with Sen. Cynthia Lummis, a Wyoming Republican.
Haaland’s “record is clear: she opposes pipelines & fossil fuels, ignores science when it comes to wildlife management & wants to ban trapping on public lands,” Daines said in a tweet announcing his hold.
Lummis said she recognized the historic nature of Haaland’s nomination. “But there is no connection between her heritage and her support of the Green New Deal and attacking oil and natural gas production as a means to address climate change,” she said on the floor.
The holds forced an extra procedural vote, which Haaland on Thursday won 54-42. The same four Republicans who voted for her on Monday also backed advancing her nomination.
HuffPost reported that Graham was influenced by a letter from a tribal leader in his home state. Chief William Harris of the Catawba Indian Nation told Graham that Haaland’s nomination is “truly historic for our community.”
Senate Democrats praised Haaland for her conduct at the rough Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing.
“I will tell you that I have gone to more than my share of nomination hearings, but what I saw was a nominee with exceptional backbone and decency, who was being clear, being straightforward,” Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said on the floor last week. “At times, it was a little hard to take because the questioning, I thought, was not just strong but over the line. At the same time, the congresswoman showed her calm, her knowledge, and her perseverance in the face of this.”
Sen. Jacky Rosen, a Nevada Democrat, said that 50 million acres in her state are managed by Interior—70 percent of the entire state—and that Haaland will strike the right balance between protection and economic development.
“In previous administrations, we have seen efforts to put those public lands on the chopping blocks. But that won’t happen under Deb Haaland’s leadership,” Rosen said.
Advocates for public lands in statements praised Haaland’s confirmation.
“Deb Haaland is the exact leader we need to steward our public lands using a balanced approach to job creation, responsible energy development, wildlife recovery, habitat restoration, clean water safeguards, cultural treasure protection, and access to outdoor recreation,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.
“We are thrilled for Secretary Haaland to lead the Department of Interior and implement a bold agenda based on science, equity, and environmental justice,” said League of Conservation Voters Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Tiernan Sittenfeld.