Haaland confirmed as first Native American interior secretary

By Joseph Morton
CQ-Roll Call/TNS
Rep. Debra Haaland, D-N.M., was confirmed on Monday, March 15, 2021, to be secretary of the Department of the Interior.

WASHINGTON - Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., will be the first Native American to serve in the Cabinet after the Senate voted 51-40 Monday to confirm her as interior secretary.

Democrats highlighted the historic nature of her confirmation, noting that she describes herself as a 35th-generation New Mexican.

“Rep. Haaland’s confirmation represents a gigantic step forward in creating a government that represents the full richness and diversity of this country because Native Americans were for far too long neglected at the Cabinet-level and in so many other places,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said ahead of Monday’s vote.

She will run a department whose 70,000 employees oversee vast tracts of public land and manage a large portion of the country’s natural resources. The department also includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Her confirmation came despite the strong objections of some Republican senators, particularly those representing western oil and gas states. They cited her past positions and statements about the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground and protect wildlife in ways that her critics said ignored science.

“Unfortunately, Representative Haaland has a very well documented and hostile record toward made-in-America energy, toward natural resource development, toward wildlife management and sportsmen,” said Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who helped lead the opposition to her nomination.

Daines said his opposition was not based on her political party and he pointed out that he has supported other nominees put forward by President Joe Biden.

“This is about her record, her very far left divisive positions that will fail to represent the West, to be in the mainstream of commonsense and balance,” Daines said. “And I fear she will harm the Montana way of life as we know it.”

Haaland sought during her confirmation hearing to reassure senators that she will be pursuing Biden’s agenda, not her own, and that she understands her role will be different than representing a single House district. That was enough to win over a few Republican senators, including both from Alaska.

Her nomination was supported by a host of Native American and environmental groups who welcomed her confirmation Monday.

Schumer outlined the challenges Haaland will now face in the job.

“She must refocus the Interior Department on preserving and protecting almost 500 million acres of public lands, combating climate change and environmental degradation, and upholding the federal government’s obligation to tribal nations,” Schumer said.

He said the Trump administration undermined the relationship between federal agencies and those tribal nations, in part by neglecting those communities as they were hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

“In elevating Rep. Haaland to lead the Department of the Interior, we reset the relationship between the federal government and tribal nations to one of cooperation, mutual respect and trust - so different than the last administration’s attitude,” Schumer said.