Senator Joe Manchin III, the West Virginia Democrat who heads the Senate Energy Committee, announced Wednesday that he will vote to confirm Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico to head the Interior Department.
Mr. Manchin’s vote could be crucial to Ms. Haaland’s confirmation, as Republicans this week escalated attacks on the former environmental activist, signaling that the vote to confirm her could come down to party lines.
If confirmed, Ms. Haaland would make history as the first Native American to head a cabinet agency. She would also play a central role in advancing President Biden’s climate change agenda, as the head of an agency that oversees over 500 million acres of public lands, including national parks, oil and gas drilling sites, and endangered species habitat. And she would be charged with enacting one of Mr. Biden’s most contentious proposals: the banning of future leases to conduct hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for oil and gas on public lands.
But her nomination has come under fire as Republicans have expressed concerns about her history of pushing to shut down fossil fuel drilling and pipelines — positions which go further than those of Mr. Biden.
The Republican National Committee on Tuesday sent out an email urging senators to vote against Ms. Haaland, writing, “By nominating Haaland, Biden is embracing far-left special interest groups who do not care what jobs they destroy, do not know the true impacts of their policies, and have no answers on when they can get Americans back to work.”
Should Republicans unite against Ms. Haaland, she will need the support of every Democrat in the equally divided Senate, which would allow Vice President Kamala Harris to cast the deciding vote in a party-line divide. Until now, the vote of Mr. Manchin, who heads the Senate energy panel but has often voted with Republicans on energy policy issues, remained uncertain. Mr. Manchin, whose home state of West Virginia is heavily reliant on coal mining, has expressed concern about Mr. Biden’s plans to curb fossil fuel exploration.
Mr. Manchin’s announcement that he plans to vote for Ms. Haaland also underscores the crucial role he will play in the success or failure of the president’s legislative agenda. (He already said he would vote against another of Mr. Biden’s nominees, Neera Tanden, who was nominated to the head the Office of Management and Budget, casting doubt on her prospects for confirmation.)
In a statement, Mr. Manchin said: “Given the political divisions currently facing our country, I believe that every presidential nominee and every member of Congress must be committed to a new era of bipartisanship. That is the standard the overwhelming majority of Americans expect and deserve.”
Regarding Ms. Haaland, he added, “while we do not agree on every issue, she reaffirmed her strong commitment to bipartisanship, addressing the diverse needs of our country and maintaining our nation’s energy independence.”
Appearing before the Senate Energy Committee on Wednesday for her second day of confirmation hearings, Ms. Haaland faced sharp criticism from oil-state Republicans, who made clear that they will not support her.
Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the ranking Republican on the energy panel, singled out remarks made by Ms. Haaland in 2018 as she campaigned to eliminate oil and gas production in New Mexico, and proposed legalizing and taxing cannabis as a way to make up for the lost state revenue.
“Is selling marijuana among what the Biden administration calls the ‘better choices’ that the Biden administration has promised to give displaced oil and gas workers?” Mr. Barrasso asked. He added, “Your preference is to turn to drugs — is what you’ve recommended to the voters — at a time when we know there is high unemployment, and energy workers lose their jobs.”
Ms. Haaland responded that the proposal was intended to signal that she wants to “diversify sources of revenue for education,” and she added, “I don’t know what President Biden’s stance is on marijuana.”
Ms. Haaland told senators repeatedly that in her role as the head of a federal agency, she would carry out the agenda of the president, rather than push per personal views.
“If I’m confirmed as secretary, that is a far different role than a congresswoman representing one small district in my state,” she said. “So I understand that role: It’s to serve all Americans, not just my one district in New Mexico.