WASHINGTON – The Senate confirmed Deb Haaland as Interior secretary Monday, making her the first Native American member of to serve in a presidential Cabinet.
The vote was 51-40 with all Democrats and a handful of Republicans voting to confirm her.
“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 Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the Senate before the vote Monday evening.
For more than 171 years, the federal agency responsible for managing the U.S. relationship with hundreds of recognized tribes has never had a Native American at its helm.
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But GOP lawmakers are unhappy with Haaland, not only over Biden’s climate change agenda that includes an oil and gas drilling pause on public lands, but her past statements calling for an end to natural gas fracking and pipeline development. The GOP is also upset about a tweet she sent in October saying, “Republicans don’t believe in science.”
Haaland, 60, is an enrolled citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna Native American tribe in New Mexico. She won reelection to a U.S. House seat in November but will be leaving Congress to take her position in President Joe Biden’s Cabinet.
Now confirmed, she will helm an agency with more than 70,000 employees that is responsible for managing 480 million federal acres – nearly one fifth the land area of the United States – as well as 2.5 billion acres of the Outer Continental Shelf. The department’s portfolio includes more than 400 national parks, some 100 national monuments and approximately 500 national wildlife refuges.
The sprawling agency not only includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service but it also manages and administers 55 million acres of estates held in trust by the United States for hundreds of Native American tribes, including the Pueblo of Laguna.
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Pressing issues such as land rights, health care, and sacred site protections may not satisfy every tribe in a Biden administration, tribal leaders and other Native American advocates acknowledge. But they expressed a sense of hope that, with Haaland, they would have a key ally in the Cabinet and that true give-and-take on hot-button issues might finally take place.
Environmental groups applauded the vote too.
“Today is a historic day for all of us who care for our public lands and waters,” said Theresa Pierno, president and CEO for the National Parks Conservation Association. “As a descendant of the original guardians of our lands, she brings a unique perspective, unlike any Interior secretary before her.”
Last month, Haaland was grilled by Republicans during her confirmation hearing at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee not only over the president’s aggressive efforts to stop drilling on public lands but also her own public statements opposing fossil fuel extraction.
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During her confirmation hearing, Haaland downplayed some past statements, saying at one point “it’s President Biden’s agenda I would move forward, not my own.” Later, she said she acknowledged that the Interior secretary “serves all Americans, not just one small district in New Mexico.”
Haaland also tried to deflect the criticism from several Republican senators over oil, gas and coal development, saying public lands could be used more for clean energy, such as wind and solar. And she promised to help fossil fuel workers find new opportunities in an economy that will rely less on carbon emitting industries.