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Pro-Fossil Fuel Senators Grill Deb Haaland as She Bids to Become First Indigenous Cabinet Secretary

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Indigenous communities across the United States are closely following the Senate confirmation hearings of Congressmember Deb Haaland, President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Interior Department, who would become the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary if she is confirmed. Haaland is a tribal citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, and the prospect of an Indigenous person leading the federal department with broad oversight of Native American affairs has galvanized support for her in Indian Country. Several Republican senators have grilled Haaland over her past comments opposing fracking, the Keystone XL oil pipeline and other fossil fuel projects, attempting to paint her as a “radical.” Journalist Julian Brave NoiseCat says there is a deep irony in Republican attacks on Haaland. “As soon as we get the first-ever Native cabinet secretary nominated, conservatives act like we’re going to take away their land and their way of life,” he says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show on Capitol Hill. President Biden’s pick to head the Interior Department, New Mexico Congressmember Deb Haaland, is returning today for a second day of those confirmation hearings before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. If confirmed, she would become the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary in U.S. history.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Republican senators grilled her about past comments opposing fracking, the Keystone XL oil pipeline and other fossil fuel projects. But she did have some Republican support. Republican Congressman Don Young of Alaska introduced Haaland before the committee and urged Republican senators to back her confirmation.

REP. DON YOUNG: In the House, I’m the oldest member of both bodies. I have served with 10 presidents and 15 secretaries of interior. There’s not much I don’t and have not seen. I have a theory, because I’m a mariner, that the captain of the ship has a right to choose who he has as his crew. I’m not always agreed with the secretaries of interior. But I will say that that’s the responsibility of the president. President Biden has chosen Deb, and she is accepted. And I would suggest, respectfully, you will find out that she will listen to you. She may not change. Like, she and I do not agree on carbon fuels. You know that. We’ve said this before. But it’s my job to try to convince her that she’s not all right, and her job to convince me I’m not all right. That’s the important part about the secretary. Also we keep in mind that another reason I’m supporting her, she is an American Indian. I am quite proud of that fact.

AMY GOODMAN: Republican Congressman Don Young of Alaska introducing New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland, President Biden’s pick to head the Interior Department. Haaland began her opening statement by speaking in Keres, her Pueblo language.

REP. DEB HAALAND: Gu’wa’tsi Hau’ba. [continues in Keres]

Chairman Manchin, Ranking Member Barrasso, members of the committee, thank you so much for having me here today. I wouldn’t be here without the love and support of my child, Somáh; my partner, Skip, who is with me this morning sitting behind me; my mom, Mary Toya, who’s watching from Isleta Pueblo; my extended family; and generations of ancestors who have sacrificed so much so I could be here today. I acknowledge that we are on the ancestral homelands of the Nacotchtank, Anacostan and Piscataway people.

As many of you know, my story is unique. Although today I serve as a member of Congress and was the vice chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, if confirmed, I would be the first Native American to serve as cabinet secretary. This historic nature of my confirmation is not lost on me, but I will say it’s not about me. Rather, I hope this nomination would be an inspiration for Americans moving forward together as one nation and creating opportunities for all of us.

As the daughter of a Pueblo woman, I was taught to value hard work. My mother is a Navy veteran, was a civil servant at the Bureau of Indian Education for 25 years, and she raised four kids as a military wife. My dad, the grandson of immigrants, was a 30-year career marine who served in Vietnam. He received the Silver Star and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. I spent summers in Mesita, our small village on Laguna Pueblo, the location of my grandparents’ traditional home. It was there that I learned about my culture from my grandmother, by watching her cook and by participating in traditional feast days and ceremonies. It was in the cornfields with my grandfather where I learned the importance of water and protecting our resources, where I gained a deep respect for the Earth. …

I’m not a stranger to the struggles many families across America face today. I’ve lived most of my adult life paycheck to paycheck. I’ve pieced together healthcare for me and my child as a single mom, and at times relied on food stamps to put food on the table. It’s because of these struggles that I fully understand the role interior must play in the president’s plan to build back better, to responsibly manage our natural resources to protect them for future generations, so that we can continue to work, live, hunt, fish and pray among them. …

If confirmed, I will work my heart out for everyone, the families of fossil fuel workers who helped build our country, ranchers and farmers who care deeply for their lands, communities with legacies of toxic pollution, people of color whose stories deserve to be heard, and those who want jobs of the future. I vow to lead the Interior Department ethically and with honor and integrity. I will listen to and work with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. I will support interior’s public servants and be a careful steward of taxpayer dollars. I will ensure that the Interior Department’s decisions are based on science. I will honor the sovereignty of tribal nations and recognize their part in America’s story, and I’ll be a fierce advocate for our public lands.

AMY GOODMAN: Interior secretary nominee Deb Haaland speaking at her confirmation hearing Tuesday. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that is holding the hearing. He has reportedly not yet decided whether he’ll back Deb Haaland’s confirmation. Manchin questioned her Tuesday.

SEN. JOE MANCHIN: In your opening statement, you noted that fossil energy does and will continue to play a major role in America for years to come. So, my question would be: Do you believe that it’s in our best interest to maintain our energy independence? And what role do you see fossil energy playing in that?

REP. DEB HAALAND: Thank you, Senator, Chairman, for that question. And yes, of course, we do — we absolutely need energy independence. And I believe President Biden agrees with that statement, as well. I know that we want to move forward with some clean energy. We want to get to net zero. And as the chairwoman of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, yes, 25% of our carbon comes from our public lands. So, I think that as we move forward with the technology that you and I spoke about when we had our conversation, we want to move forward with innovation and all of this for our energy needs. So, I think that’s not going to happen overnight. And so, we will absolutely rely on the fossil energy that you and the ranking member spoke about in your opening statements. But at the same time, I think we can move forward with the technology and innovation, as well.

SEN. JOE MANCHIN: Yeah. Well, I think you pretty much know my position on that. Basically, I’m totally committed to innovation, not elimination.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Julian Brave NoiseCat. He’s an Indigenous journalist and vice president of policy and strategy at the think tank Data for Progress. His latest piece for Politico is “Native Americans Finally Have a Cabinet Nominee. Will an Adopted Tlingit Take Her Down?”

Julian, thanks so much for coming back to Democracy Now! Can you give us your takeaways from yesterday’s hearing? Of course, Deb Haaland will continue today in her confirmation hearing, to make history, become the first Native American cabinet member.

JULIAN BRAVE NOISECAT: Well, first, thanks so much for having me on again, Amy. It’s always a pleasure.

So, I have a few takeaways from yesterday’s meeting — yesterday’s hearing, excuse me. The first would be that, you know, Republicans on the committee were trying really hard to get the sort of charged exchange that plays well to their base and their audience on Hannity and Tucker Carlson. And I don’t think that they got that kind of an exchange. I actually had Fox News on in the background last night while I was doing some writing. There was not a peep about Haaland’s hearing. So I think the first thing I would say is that conservatives like Republican Steve Daines of Montana, you know, ranking member of the committee John Barrasso of Wyoming, all signaled that they were going to make this a fight and then took a number of swings at Secretary-designate Haaland and missed. It was a big whiff for them. So I think that they’re going to be fishing for, essentially, some content for their viewers in today’s hearing. And I’m going to be keenly watching to see if they end up landing any of those sort of punches.

You know, the second thing that I would point out is just that Congresswoman Haaland, I think, was very thoughtful in her responses and incredibly measured. I heard her say something to the effect of, after being grilled by some of these Republican senators, saying that “I look forward to working with you, and thank you for your questions,” things like that. She must have said that nearly a dozen times in the hearing.

But I think that she came with a presence that made me very proud to be Native. She, of course, introduced herself in her language. She acknowledged the territory of the people on whose land the hearing was taking place. And when you juxtapose just her presence in that hearing with the history of interior, a department that was once led by man named Alexander Stuart, who described the Interior Department’s role and the United States policy as needing to be one of civilizing or exterminating Native people — that’s actually the quote that he used — you know, I think that it was a very, very powerful and important sort of moment for Indian Country. As you mentioned, Native people tuned in from across the country to watch that hearing in the middle of the day.

And then, lastly, I would say that there were some moments where I think that some of the exchanges actually really went really well for Congresswoman Haaland and Secretary-designate Haaland. There was one in particular where Senator Steve Daines, who’s been kind of the leader of the charge against Haaland, asked her why she supported a bill that would protect grizzly bears in perpetuity, to which the secretary-designate responded, “I believe I was caring for the bears,” which, you know, is just sort of a wonderful, very simple response. And immediately, with all the folks following on the internet, people started tweeting about that. You know, people were using #DebForInterior, which was trending that day. And then people started using #BearsForDeb, hashtag #BearsForDeb, on Twitter just to, like, sort of play on this kind of hilarious thing, where voting for protections for grizzlies was supposed to be a big conservative gotcha. And I think that, in that, you know, there is just a way in which Native people are incredibly well practiced in the art of poking fun at our antagonists. We’ve, of course, had to do this for hundreds of years. And I kind of liked how, actually, the tables kind of got turned back around on Republicans in terms of the narrative. So, I thought it was a good day, and I’ll be watching very closely today.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Julian, I wanted to ask you — some of the critics of her nomination have pointed to her, one, relative lack of experience and also to her presence at Standing Rock and her support for the water protectors fighting the Dakota Access pipeline. But there was an op-ed piece by two former U.S. senators, Mark Udall and Tom Udall, former senators of Colorado, who also said that Ryan Zinke, President Trump’s nominee, only had one term in Congress when he was named to the Department of Interior, and there was no big raising of criticism about his lack of experience then. I’m wondering how you feel these things may affect the vote in the Senate.

JULIAN BRAVE NOISECAT: Yeah, I thought that the Udall senators, former senators, Tom and Mark, made a really good — some really good points in that USA Today op-ed. Of course, Zinke actually got 68 votes for his confirmation in the Senate. And I don’t think anybody anticipates Secretary-designate Haaland getting anywhere near that number of votes, which I think is both a testament to the amount of polarization in our political system right now, but also, I think, to something that the Udalls identified which is going under the surface here, which is that, you know, as soon as we get the first-ever Native cabinet secretary nominated, conservatives act like we’re going to take away their land and their way of life and things like that. And they literally have used things like “way of life” in some of their quotes criticizing Secretary-designate Haaland. And listening to a number of Western politicians talk about how perhaps Native people are going to turn around and take away things from them strikes me as deeply ironic, perhaps even sort of a Freudian expression of the conservative id, if you will.

And, you know, of course, none of that actually matches reality. As you mentioned, yes, Secretary-designate Haaland comes with more experiences than any prior interior secretary — you know, the fact that she’s a representative of the First Peoples of this land, the fact that she went to the camps erected in the path of the Dakota Access pipeline and cooked for the water protectors. Those are experiences that no other interior secretary can say that they have on their résumé. You know, she also has a very strong track record as a legislator. She rebuilt the New Mexico state Democratic Party in 2016, where they actually had a good year in what was an otherwise very bad year for Democrats.

And lastly, you know, I think what’s really troubling to me about the way that conservatives are just coming at the secretary-designate is, if you look at her track record, actually, in Congress, of all House freshmen, she introduced the most bills with bipartisan support in the 116th Congress. So, on paper, she is one of the best legislators at reaching across the aisle. Yet Republicans in the media are trying to paint her as some sort of divisive partisan, when she has never been that. I mean, listen to what Congressman Young had to say about her.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to turn to Republican Senator John Barrasso from Wyoming questioning Congressmember Haaland.

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO: As a general matter, should the federal government continue to permit oil and gas wells in this country?

REP. DEB HAALAND: Yes, and I believe that’s happening.

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO: And as a general matter, should the federal government continue to permit coal mines in this country?

REP. DEB HAALAND: Yes, since — Ranking Member, if I could just say, I know that coal mines were not a part of President Biden’s executive order.

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO: As a coal — as a general matter, should the federal government continue to permit copper, lithium and other hard rock mines in this country?

REP. DEB HAALAND: Senator, I believe that if we do these things in a responsible manner and protect the health and safety of workers, I see us moving forward. The Earth is here to provide for us. And that’s my belief.

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO: As a general matter, should the federal government continue to permit natural gas pipelines in this country?

REP. DEB HAALAND: Senator, as I mentioned in my opening statement, I believe this will go on for quite some time. And I know that President Biden is — he has put a pause on new leases, not existing ones.

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO: The question was on pipelines. So, as a general matter, should the federal government continue to permit oil pipelines in the country?

REP. DEB HAALAND: Senator, with respect to the Department of Interior, wherever pipelines fall under the authority of the Department of Interior, of course.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the interior secretary nominee Deb Haaland responding to Senator John Barrasso, who is a doctor, who also criticized Haaland for once tweeting, “Republicans don’t believe in science.” He asked her about her tweet, and she responded, “If you’re a doctor, I would assume that you believe in science,” because he asked if she still believed this. Julian Brave NoiseCat, if you could respond to what Congressmember Haaland is saying, what her record is, and what you think needs to happen going forward?

JULIAN BRAVE NOISECAT: Well, firstly, I would just say that Ranking Member Barrasso’s history of comments, actually, on climate change is quite notable for a doctor who believes in science. As recently as 2014, for example, he said that the science on climate change was not settled. So, I thought that that was an interesting line of questioning for someone whose statements of record are easily googleable. But nonetheless, that is the direction he chose to go.

You know, I think that, of course, the Interior Department, throughout its history, has — you know, essentially, under the surface here — right? — there is a real economic interest at stake. If you looked up the campaign contributions to the Republican members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee, you would find that among all of these senators, they’re taking a lot of money from oil and gas interests, from mining interests. And if you total it all up, it would be in the millions of dollars kind of a figure per year for all of them together. And, you know, of course, on the one hand, I think it’s reasonable to ask about impacts to industries that are significant in a state, but, on another level, I think it’s reasonable to ask what the influence of all that money might be on the way that these senators legislate.

And so, you know, I think coming into an institution, both the Senate and Interior, which has for years, essentially, been selling off permits to lease and drill for oil and gas on public lands for pennies on the dollar, these are institutions that are very stuck in their ways, that are very wedded to the fossil fuel industry and economy as it has existed in this country, which has been through a large amount of subsidy and access to public land for many, many years. And, you know, to come in and change that, it’s obvious, I think, that Secretary-designate Haaland is on the side of significant change. I mean, she did go to the camps in the path of the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock. But I think she has to work with the elected officials and the institutions that she has, which, I mean, in this instance, means getting through the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, getting 50 votes, at least, for her confirmation, and then working with the permitting and leasing processes, reviewing them and reforming them as necessary.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Julian, I wanted to ask you about President Biden’s proposed Civilian Climate Corps, which was raised several times in the hearing, and your sense of how Secretary-designate Haaland would deal with that climate corps, and its impact, possibly, on her vote.

JULIAN BRAVE NOISECAT: So, the Civilian Climate Corps, I think, is a very interesting idea. It’s actually one of the ideas that you can tie directly to the Green New Deal, and then, of course, echoes the New Deal before it. In the New Deal, there was the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was a public works project where we got unemployed people back to work building parks, protecting and cleaning up parks, protecting the environment. And there is now a similar idea that has been percolating in environmental policymaking circles about getting young Americans back to work through a new program called — which would be called the Civilian Climate Conservation Corps. And, you know, I think that this is a very exciting idea. I, personally, if I was just coming out of high school or college, I might have looked at something like that and been interested in getting some sort of job in it. And, you know, I think that, obviously, interior has the parks under its purview and a lot of other — about a fifth, actually, of the nation’s lands. And so, a lot of that program will ultimately run through, hopefully, Secretary Haaland’s executive authority.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Julian, we just have 30 seconds, but, clearly, Senator Manchin is a kingmaker right now in the Senate, the conservative Democrat determining whether Neera Tanden gets approved for OMB, questions about whether he’ll support Deb Haaland. He comes from West Virginia, Big Coal senator. Your thoughts on his significance and the significance of the Republican, Murkowski? This all rests on them.

JULIAN BRAVE NOISECAT: Yes. So, Senator Murkowski is actually an adopted member of the Tlingit and won a, historically, election through write-in, with support of Native voters in 2010. So I think she knows that it would be unwise to offend Indian Country here. So I think that there is a decent chance that she votes to confirm Haaland. And I think, similarly, Manchin does not have that many Native voters in his state, but I think he understands the importance of this historic moment. And while I think he’s going to ask some tough questions of Haaland, I am hopeful that he will also do the right thing here.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Julian Brave NoiseCat, we thank you so much for being with us, journalist and vice president of policy and strategy at the think tank Data for Progress. We’ll link to your piece in Politico, “Native Americans Finally Have a Cabinet Nominee. Will an Adopted Tlingit Take Her Down?”

Next, we go to a refugee camp on the U.S.-Texas border, in Matamoros, Mexico, where asylum seekers have had to brave freezing weather while living in tents. And we’ll look at the Biden reversal of Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy. How is it working out? Stay with us.

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