In a contentious meeting that distilled a weeks-long fight, the U.S. Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee deadlocked 10-10 along party lines Thursday on approving Tracy Stone-Manning’s nomination as head of the Bureau of Land Management.
That means an extra procedural vote will be forced before the full U.S. Senate takes up the nomination of Stone-Manning, a Montanan and National Wildlife Federation senior adviser tied to a 1989 scheme to hammer spikes into trees in Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest.
But unless a Democrat splits off, it appears Stone-Manning will be confirmed, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the deciding vote in a Senate divided 50-50 between the parties. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer declared Thursday that Stone-Manning has his full support.
Prior to the committee vote, Republicans brandished metal spikes and leveled accusations as they continued to denounce Stone-Manning, a former high-ranking staffer for Montana Democrats, for her role in the tree-spiking case.
She has been nominated by President Joe Biden to lead an agency that manages 245 million acres of public lands and 700 million acres of mineral estate and plays a huge role in many Western states.
An animated Jim Risch, who was a county prosecutor in Idaho before becoming a Republican U.S. senator from the state, said Stone-Manning should be tried for perjury instead of considered for an administration job.
Risch called her nomination “the most significant insult” to the BLM and its workers he had seen in 13 years on the committee.
Democrats said she was being smeared by Republican attacks that didn’t take into account her long record in public life, and accused Republicans of caring more about events of decades ago than the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Democrats and Republicans on the panel disagreed about what the trial record, testimony from a federal investigator and others involved in the case meant about Stone-Manning’s role.
Committee Chairman Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat whose support has been crucial for Stone-Manning, said he took the accusations against her “very seriously.” His staff reviewed the 1,800-page trial record from 1993 related to the tree-spiking, a federal crime because of the harm it can cause loggers and other forest workers.
“I have been unable to find any credible evidence in the exhaustive trial record of the tree-spiking case that shows that Ms. Stone-Manning was an eco-terrorist, that she spiked any trees, that she conspired with eco-terrorists to spike trees or that she lied to the committee,” Manchin said. “What I find instead is compelling evidence that she built a solid reputation over the last three decades as a dedicated public servant and a problem-solver who has brought people together.”
Republicans criticized Stone-Manning, as they have for weeks, for failing to come forward about what she knew of the plan to spike trees.
She only provided the 1993 testimony that helped convict two men of the tree-spiking after investigators became aware of her role, which included re-typing and sending a threatening letter to the U.S. Forest Service, ranking Republican John Barrasso of Wyoming said.
Central to the Republican case against Stone-Manning is that she lied to the committee by saying she was never the target of an investigation. Investigators in the tree-spiking case collected hair samples, fingerprints and other evidence from Stone-Manning, making her a target, Republicans say.
Former Forest Service investigator Michael W. Merkley wrote in a letter to the committee that Stone-Manning had been sent a letter telling her she was targeted for investigation. John Blount, one of those convicted of spiking the trees, said Stone-Manning knew of the plan in advance.
A co-defendant has refuted that claim. The trial record shows no evidence she knew in advance, Manchin said.
But Barrasso, who’s led the GOP assault, said Merkley’s and Blount’s accounts show Stone-Manning has not been truthful.
“Both the cop and the criminal agree Tracy Stone-Manning is lying,” he said. “Both the cop and the criminal say she had knowledge of the plan before the trees were spiked.”
Every Republican on the committee except Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy and North Dakota’s John Hoeven spoke against Stone-Manning during the meeting.
But only half of Democrats provided substantive remarks, with Oregon’s Ron Wyden, Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono, Nevada’s Catherine Cortez Masto, Arizona’s Mark Kelly and Colorado’s John Hickenlooper speaking only to cast yes votes.
Manchin noted the meeting was among the most emotional he had seen.
In response to Risch’s comments about perjury, Manchin said that Stone-Manning’s statements had been part of the legal record for years and that she did not receive immunity from perjury charges when she testified.
Waving a metal spike that could be used for tree-spiking, Risch said the characterization of Stone-Manning making a mistake by even associating with people involved in tree-spiking too lightly dismissed a serious act of eco-terrorism.
“You put this in a tree to kill somebody,” he said. “It’s not put in for fun. It’s not a Sunday school prank… This is not a mistake. A mistake is when you reach into your sock drawer in the morning and take out two socks that don’t match. This is an intentional act for which people are sent to prison, and should be.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said there was no evidence Stone-Manning participated in tree-spiking. Instead, she built an “impeccable” 20-year record of working with the logging industry and others.
“I am disgusted by what has happened in this committee, disgusted, and I will never forget it,” Heinrich said. “This is the worst example of character assassination I have ever seen on this committee.”
Members of the panel became more familiar with domestic terrorism—a charge some Republicans have leveled against Stone-Manning—than they would like on Jan. 6, and yet failed to hold then-President Donald Trump accountable for it, it was pointed out by Democrats.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, picked up that thread after Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, said Stone-Manning should be disqualified because she hadn’t been honest with the committee or shown remorse about whatever role she had in the 1989 event.
Sanders responded that he didn’t know what happened 32 years ago, but accused Daines of lying about the 2020 election results mere months ago in a statement that accused Democrats of stealing the election.
“Is that a true statement?” Sanders asked Daines. “I want to go here because we’re talking about honesty, we’re talking about integrity. I don’t know what happened 32 years ago… but people in this room are undermining American democracy.”
Daines supported efforts to question the presidential election results until supporters of then-President Donald Trump breached the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Daines on Thursday denied the claim by some of Stone-Manning’s supporters that he’d orchestrated the opposition campaign to her nomination because she’d supported his Democratic opponent, then-Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, in last year’s election.
Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, called the argumentative meeting a “skunk fight.” He focused his remarks on a personal loan Stone-Manning received from a real estate developer in 2008 while working for Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana.
Marshall said the 6% interest rate and payment terms of the loan amounted to an improper gift. Manchin responded it was in line with the prevailing federal standard at the time.
Calling the attacks on Stone-Manning “hysterical,” Schumer, of New York, said on the Senate floor Thursday that he would move Stone-Manning’s nomination to the floor.
Barrasso said on CNBC this week all 50 Republican senators would oppose Stone-Manning.
But with moderates like Manchin and Tester in favor, a floor vote is likely to also fall along party lines.
Tester told the New York Times this week that Democrats “have the votes to get her confirmed.”
It could still be weeks before the full Senate moves on the nomination.
In another recent case of a nominee who split a Senate committee, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl received a 13-13 vote in the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 24.
The Senate didn’t vote to discharge his nomination from the committee until April 21. He was confirmed six days later.