Interior appointment enrages Biden’s Senate critics

By Nidhi Prakash, Emma Dumain | 11/01/2023 06:18 AM EDT

Laura Daniel-Davis’ rise to acting deputy secretary risks further alienating lawmakers who question the president’s actions on energy.

Laura Daniel-Davis.

Laura Daniel-Davis during an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing. Francis Chung/POLITICO

Senate Republicans and a prominent Democrat blasted the Biden administration Tuesday for appointing Laura Daniel-Davis to the No. 2 spot at the Interior Department.

Lawmakers complained that Daniel-Davis, who was officially elevated to the post of acting deputy Interior secretary earlier Tuesday, had failed to win Senate confirmation for a separate post owing to her climate change views.

“This is a mistake; she’s already been rejected by the United States Senate,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said Tuesday.


Barrasso, the ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called the Biden administration’s decision to appoint Daniel-Davis a signal of the president’s “complete lack of interest or respect [for] affordable, available energy to the American people.”

The committee’s Democratic chair, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, called the appointment “troubling.”

Daniel-Davis’ road to her current posting has been rocky. While she has been serving at Interior on a temporary basis as principal deputy secretary of Lands and Minerals Management, her confirmation to lead that office has been on ice.

Manchin, who had once supported her, later changed his stance after a memo surfaced showing Daniel-Davis supported efforts to curtail oil and gas leases in Alaska to advance Biden administration climate goals.

Some lawmakers saw the move to elevate Daniel-Davis — following the announced departure of Tommy Beaudreau — as a likely acknowledgement from the Biden administration of the explosive politics around the Department of the Interior and that any nominee would struggle to gain Senate confirmation.

“I think they probably figured that there was going to be so much resistance to anybody they put up there that they wouldn’t be able to get them through a confirmation process,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), one of Daniel-Davis’ fiercest opponents on Capitol Hill. “So they were gonna put up the person that they wanted.”

On Monday, Manchin told E&E News it wasn’t personal: “I have my differences with the whole system — the Interior Department completely — because it’s going in the wrong direction. I don’t think it’s good for our country.”

Pressed on whether he had concerns about Daniel-Davis in a leadership role at Interior, specifically, Manchin said, “No, no.”

The Interior press office deferred to the White House for comment on whether it planned to put forth an official nominee for deputy secretary. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Daniel-Davis has been ensnared in a series of controversial decisions over land use for energy extraction activities, and Republicans blamed her for executing presidential directives.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Republicans insisted on a second confirmation hearing to scrutinize Daniel-Davis for her climate views and unanimously voted against advancing her nomination to the full Senate in 2022.

When a memo, signed by Daniel-Davis, inadvertently posted online back in March of 2023 that rejected cutting oil and gas royalty rates for a lease sale off the coast of Alaska — arguing that doing so would encourage fossil fuel development and contradict the administration’s efforts to combat climate change — it was the final straw for Murkowski.

It also incensed Manchin. Later that same week, he announced his committee would not vote another time to move Daniel-Davis through his panel, effectively killing her nomination.

‘Do what they damn well want’

Now, Murkowski said the decision to promote Daniel-Davis has the potential to further alienate her from the administration that continues to rely on her for help advancing other nominees and agenda items.

“It certainly makes me, as someone who is trying to figure out, ‘Okay, how do I work with all of these people in an administration where I disagree on policies, I’m still trying to figure out a way to work with them?’ — It sure doesn’t make me feel more inclined to do so,” she said.

Murkowski, who is still smarting over the departure of Beaudreau in the deputy secretary role — an ally who she personally recommended for the job, and who Daniel-Davis is succeeding in the acting capacity — also called it “one of those signals coming out of the administration that … they just really don’t care about what Congress thinks about who they put in there. They’re gonna do what they damn well want.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who said she has “about a zero chance in Hell of ever getting confirmed,” suggested the Interior inspector general was “looking into some of her activity.”

The department’s Office of the Inspector General did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Daniel-Davis’ title of “principal deputy assistant secretary,” which she has held since January 2021, does not require congressional approval.

It became a workaround to allow her to stay on effectively leading the office when her nomination to be the assistant secretary stalled earlier this year.

Under the federal Vacancies Act, Daniel-Davis can continue to serve in her new position as acting deputy for the department for 210 days if there is no official nominee put forward by the administration. Once a nominee is announced, she can stay in the role indefinitely as long as the nomination is pending in the Senate.

Senators are already complaining.

“If we can’t — if they can’t — get people confirmed, they want to put people in acting [positions]. And that seems to be the permanent plan now,” Manchin said Monday. “That doesn’t make any sense to me whatsoever.”

“Their insistence on ignoring the confirmation process to advance their agenda undermines the role of the Senate and should be troubling to everyone,” he added in a statement Tuesday.

Trump precedent

The Trump administration appointed dozens of agency leaders using a similar tactic, assigning them deputy and acting titles to circumvent the Senate confirmation process.

One notable case was William Perry Pendley, the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management for more than a year from July 2019. He was eventually removed from the job through a lawsuit filed by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock in 2020.

Then-presidential candidate Biden celebrated the court decision — “Today is Public Lands Day and National Hunting and Fishing Day — and what better way to celebrate than the long overdue removal of William Perry Pendley from @blmnational,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “It’s a victory for everyone who values our public lands over those who want to exploit them for profit.”

Meanwhile, Daniel-Davis’ supporters on Capitol Hill defended the Biden administration’s decision to appoint her in an acting role rather than immediately naming a nominee for confirmation, pointing to the difficulty of getting anyone approved in the closely divided Senate.

“Generally we should go through the confirmation process but the confirmation process around here is not exactly firing on all cylinders,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), an independent who caucuses with Democrats. “So we need people in these positions.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a former chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called Daniel-Davis “a very solid professional.”

“I’m not going to second guess that decision but what I can tell you is the administration pick is experienced, professional and as former chairman of the committee we’ve known about her good work for a while,” he said.