Rep. Ryan Zinke’s nomination to become interior secretary passed a Senate committee Tuesday, placing him one step closer to lead an agency that manages millions of acres of federal land and the natural resources under it.
The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources approved Zinke (R-Mont.), on a 16-6 vote largely along party lines. Zinke’s nomination now goes to the Senate floor, where he will probably be confirmed. All of the committee’s 12 Republicans voted in Zinke’s favor, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), its chairman; Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), who was in the middle of his own vote in the Judiciary Committee to become attorney general; and Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.).
But six Democrats who grilled Zinke on issues such as climate change and sexual harassment at his hearing voted no, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), an independent who caucuses with Democrats; Al Franken (Minn.) and Tammy Duckworth (Ill.). Four Democrats approved the nomination.
Zinke immediately put to rest a question that shadowed his nomination early in his hearing a little more than a week ago. He said that he absolutely had no intention of selling federal land to states or other parties. Zinke told the committee that President Trump’s ambitious infrastructure spending plans should “prioritize the estimated $12.5 billion in backlog of maintenance and repair” at hundreds of national parks across the country.
The nominee enjoyed the support of Republicans from western states where officials considered the Obama administration’s regulation of coal and protections of wildlife such as the greater sage grouse an intrusion that hurt revenue from natural resources. Democrats pushed Zinke to reveal whether he thought climate change was caused by human use of fossil fuels such as coal.
“Man has had an influence,” Zinke said under questioning by Sanders, but like many of Trump’s nominees said there’s a question of how much warming humans cause, though the vast majority of climate scientists say people are the driving force. The nominee would not commit to a limited approach to allowing the excavation of coal, gas and minerals underground; Trump has promised to restore coal industry jobs by tapping federal resources.
Duckworth had a tense exchange with Zinke at the earlier hearing over whether he deplored Trump’s earlier comments about touching women, as well as the sexual harassment that some say has run rampant at the National Park Service, which is overseen by the interior secretary. She didn’t appear for the vote, but voted no by proxy.
“You yourself have a history of saying women who served in combat were a distraction that weakened the force,” Duckworth said at the earlier hearing. “Do you think serving in the front line of the Park Service weakens the force?”
Zinke responded to Duckworth that his daughter served in the Armed Forces, so he certainly deplores harassment. Zinke also said harassment of women at the parks service was unacceptable.
If the full Senate confirms his nomination, Zinke will inherit a department where the Park Service was told by the Trump administration shortly after the inauguration to cease tweeting. Interior employees have since been told that public engagement on Twitter is okay, “with the exception of social media posts on the secretary’s policy priorities, which will be outlined upon confirmation.”