Interior secretary nominee Deb Haaland is on track to be confirmed on Monday. Every Democratic senator is expected to vote for her confirmation. Two Republicans have said they’ll back her historic nomination, too. The only question now is how many other GOP senators will vote to confirm the first Native American Cabinet secretary in U.S. history.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) may be in the most uncomfortable position of them all.
There’s only two other people in Alaska’s entire congressional delegation besides Sullivan. They’re both Republicans. And they’re both publicly supporting Haaland.
“You’ll find she will listen to you,” Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) said as he introduced Haaland in her Senate confirmation hearing last month. He doesn’t get to vote on her confirmation, but it spoke volumes that the conservative GOP lawmaker appeared alongside Haaland and praised her in her hearing.
“Another reason I’m supporting Deb, she is an American Indian. I am quite proud of that fact. I’m close to my Alaska Natives and American Indians,” Young told the Senate panel. “I would suggest, respectfully, her working with Native people would be beneficial” as interior secretary.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who does get to vote on Haaland’s nomination, announced last week that she will be a yes. She, too, referred to overwhelming support among Alaska’s tribes.
“I am going to place my trust in Rep. Haaland … despite some very real misgivings,” Murkowski said before voting to advance Haaland’s nomination out of committee. “If you’re listening, know that I intend to work with you because I want you to be successful. And quite honestly, we need you to be successful.”
The oversimplified dilemma for Alaska lawmakers is that they have to choose between what tribes in the state want and what the oil and gas industry wants. Haaland, a New Mexico congresswoman who backs President Joe Biden’s agenda to protect public lands, is a historic and powerful figure for Alaska’s 231 federally recognized tribes who strongly back her confirmation.
But Haaland’s support for Biden’s decisions to pause new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and halt construction on the Keystone XL pipeline has drawn opposition from fossil fuel interests in the oil-rich state.
Murkowski and Young both weighed those perspectives, and both concluded that they support Haaland leading the federal agency with oversight of public lands and tribal obligations. Sullivan, meanwhile, has been silent.
“Senator Sullivan is continuing to evaluate Deb Haaland’s qualifications and review her nomination,” Sullivan spokesperson Nate Adams said in a statement.
“While the Senator understands this is a historic nomination for our nation, he has concerns that Congresswoman Haaland will reverse the progress that the Alaska delegation has made on critical energy projects, further jeopardizing jobs and working families at a time when the state’s economy is struggling to recover from the pandemic,” said Adams.
But it’s only getting more uncomfortable for Sullivan. Some Alaska Native Corporations, powerful entities in the state created by the U.S. government to help settle historic land and other claims by Alaska Natives, have begun endorsing Haaland. ANCs are the most pro-development tribal entities in the state, meaning, for Sullivan, a reason to oppose Haaland isn’t as simple as pitting her against energy interests in the state.
“DOI is a key agency with direct impact on the lives and lands of Alaska Native and American Indian peoples,” reads a March 1 statement from Calista Corporation, which has more than 33,700 shareholders and has subsidiaries in natural resource development and oilfield services. “Calista supports the nomination of Haaland as Secretary of Interior and urges both the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and U.S. Senate to expedite confirmation.
“Sealaska respectfully encourages Alaska’s Congressional delegation to support and confirm our first Indigenous Secretary of the Interior,” reads a March 5 statement on Instagram from Sealaska board chair Joe Nelson, who oversees the ANC with 22,000 shareholders. Natural resources and land management are among this ANC’s primary economic drivers.
“Confirmation of Congresswoman Haaland as Secretary of the Interior will carve a place in history that is no less significant than the country electing its first Black president,” said Nelson. “We believe that Congresswoman Haaland is the right person for this moment.”
“Thank you Deb Haaland for taking the time to learn about us!” reads a March 2 Facebook post by the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association. “We are very proud to potentially have the first ever Native American DOI Secretary. What an accomplishment for us all!!!!”
Sullivan’s spokesperson said Wednesday he didn’t have any updates on the senator’s position on Haaland when HuffPost mentioned the ANCs supporting her confirmation.
The Alaska Republican will have to reveal where he stands on Thursday. That’s when the Senate is holding a procedural vote to advance Haaland’s nomination. Typically, the way senators vote on this step is how they will vote on a nominee’s final confirmation.
Sullivan isn’t the only GOP senator staying quiet who could end up supporting Haaland. Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), a moderate Republican who sides with Democrats sometimes, is hearing from tribes in his state who want him to confirm Biden’s interior secretary pick.
“As Navajo Nation Council delegates representing Utah Navajos, and members of the Navajo Utah Commission, we are writing to express our support for the confirmation of Rep. Deb Haaland as secretary of the Department of the Interior,” reads a Feb. 27 open letter to Utah’s senators from tribal leaders in the state. “We encourage Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee to consider her confirmation as an opportunity to right historic wrongs while building on recent achievements that have strengthened relations between the Navajo Nation and the state of Utah.”
A Romney spokesperson did not respond to repeated requests for comment on whether the senator plans to support Haaland.