President Trump's nominee to the No. 2 slot at the Energy Department is likely to face a grilling on the administration's proposed budget cuts during his confirmation hearing, members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said yesterday.
Trump this week nominated Dan Brouillette, currently the senior vice president and head of public policy at the Texas-based United Services Automobile Association, to be deputy secretary at DOE (E&E Daily, April 4).
Several senators on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee this week said they were unfamiliar with the nominee or know of him only by reputation. However, they said Brouillette's confirmation hearing is likely to be less about the nominee's credentials than a forum on Trump's plans for DOE, which is targeted for budget cuts and the outright elimination of numerous popular programs under the administration's fiscal 2018 budget blueprint submitted last month (Greenwire, March 16).
While Energy Secretary Rick Perry largely coasted through his confirmation hearing in January, he was able to deflect questions over leaked administration documents that signaled major cuts were in store for the department under Trump. At the time, Perry said that he was unaware of Trump's plans for the department but assured senators he would fight for research dollars (E&E Daily, Jan. 20).
Brouillette's hearing will be "very different," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a senior member of the panel and a former chairman, said in an interview yesterday.
"This is a hearing where those budget cuts will be front and center," he said. "This budget is hostile to a lot of important priorities."
Trump's proposed budget cuts have triggered far-reaching concerns across the Department of Energy. One DOE career staffer, who asked to remain anonymous because DOE officials were not cleared to talk to the press, said the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy heard about looming budget cuts from Daniel Simmons, a political appointee who formerly served as vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research and former director of the natural resources task force at the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.
Simmons, the staffer said, touched on severe cuts the office would face based on White House numbers and the president's desire to boost defense spending but offered no insight into how the administration coordinated or discussed the cuts with the agency. The White House last month asked Congress to cut DOE by $1.43 billion in fiscal 2017 to help fund a $33 billion hike in supplemental defense spending for the final six months of the year (Greenwire, March 28).
Trump's budget blueprint calls for the elimination of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, the Title 17 Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program and the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program. It also seeks budget cuts for the department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Office of Nuclear Energy, Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, and Fossil Energy Research and Development program.
The budget has been panned by Democrats, while also sparking more muted concerns from Republican backers of DOE.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said yesterday that unlike Perry, she anticipates Brouillette will be put in the position of defending the budget.
"I think that becomes a bigger part of the discussion with the nominee," she said.
Energy panel member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said yesterday that she's "very concerned" about the direction DOE is headed after the budget's release.
"I think they're going to have to be able to answer about visions and priorities," she said.
Committee ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who was unfamiliar with the nominee, echoed the point.
"I've just been at home and my constituents are loud and clear: They believe in science, they want our government to believe in science," she said. "They want our agencies who are in charge of critical resources to believe in science."
'Very anxious' over nominees
Murkowski said she will schedule a nomination hearing for Brouillette as soon as possible but noted that as of yesterday, the committee had not received the nominee's paperwork.
She also noted lingering frustration over the slow pace of nominees from the White House, saying she spoke with Perry last month before his surprise visit to Yucca Mountain and he was "very anxious to have a full team in place."
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is also "clearly frustrated" at the delays in filling the top slots at his department, she added.
Murkowski said she's recently made inquiries to other Senate committee chairmen to assess whether they are processing nominees under their jurisdiction. "Nobody is," she said.
Despite the delays, rumors have abounded for weeks that the White House was on the verge of filling key energy and environmental slots, including the three vacancies on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which currently lacks a voting quorum.
"Everything is imminent," Murkowski said sarcastically.
While the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee yesterday approved the nomination of Jeffrey Rosen to be the Transportation Department's deputy secretary, Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said he's still waiting for a host of other slots in his panel's jurisdiction to be filled.
The reason for the delay is unclear, he said. "The background process, especially in the current environment, seems to be more time-consuming," he said. "But then part of it is I don't know if they're just not getting names up there."
Reminded of Trump's comment a few weeks ago that it might be "unnecessary" to fill scores of appointed slots within the federal government, Thune conceded that the president's view may be a factor (E&E Daily, March 6).
"That's maybe part of it, but we're ready to move and as quickly as we can," he said.
Reporter Hannah Northey contributed.