Biden’s public lands pick nears crucial vote in growing Senate confirmation fight

By: - July 11, 2021 11:00 am

Browns Canyon National Monument covers about 22,000 acres of federally and state-managed public lands in Chaffee County, Colorado. (Photo via U.S. Bureau of Land Management)

Republican senators during the past few weeks led sustained attacks on President Joe Biden’s choice to head up the Bureau of Land Management, zeroing in on the Montanan’s Twitter feed, her graduate thesis that included a mock-up for an advertisement for population control and her ties to a 1989 tree-spiking incident.

But Tracy Stone-Manning’s confirmation prospects appear unaffected so far as the U.S. Senate returns from its July 4 recess and heads toward a potential vote on her nomination to lead the agency that serves as the custodian of millions of acres of public lands and invaluable mineral resources.

Tracy Stone-Manning is President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. (Photo courtesy of University of Montana)

The Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee hasn’t yet scheduled a confirmation vote for Stone-Manning, an executive with the National Wildlife Federation and a former aide to Montana Democrats U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and former Gov. Steve Bullock.

But her supporters are optimistic it could happen sometime within the next few weeks, though she likely will have to first answer additional tough questions raised by Republicans.

Senate leaders with a busy agenda through the rest of the year also might feel pressure to move before the chamber’s scheduled recess in early August. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York told colleagues Friday that portions of the recess may be canceled to work through an infrastructure bill and other pressing business.

Manchin in the middle

While the Senate has been out of session, Stone-Manning’s supporters and detractors continued their public relations pushes.

No Democrats on the committee or in the evenly split Senate have yet said they oppose Stone-Manning’s nomination. But caught in the middle is the energy panel’s chairman, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III.

Manchin, the Senate’s most conservative Democrat and one of its loudest advocates of bipartisanship, is often seen as the dividing line in the 50-50 Senate, and he faces pressure to balance relationships on both sides of the aisle.

Republicans on the committee, especially ranking member John Barrasso of Wyoming, have strongly opposed the nomination, while Tester, Manchin’s fellow red-state Democrat, and the Biden administration are firmly behind her.

Manchin has not publicly taken a position on Stone-Manning.

Barrasso’s office distributed more opposition research while the Senate was away, digging into Stone-Manning’s graduate thesis in 1992 that included samples of ads advocating for limiting families to two children.

In addition, Barrasso criticized her amplification on Twitter of an article her husband, the environmentalist Richard Manning, wrote that appeared unsympathetic to people vulnerable to wildfire.

Crucial to Barrasso’s opposition is his contention that she misled senators when she answered in a questionnaire that she had never been the subject to a criminal investigation.

Federal investigators subpoenaed Stone-Manning in the early 1990s in connection with the 1989 tree-spiking — an act of eco-terrorism —in an Idaho forest. Stone-Manning mailed a threatening letter warning that the trees were spiked. She later testified against the scheme’s organizers, who were convicted.

Barrasso has sought to frame the subpoena as an investigation into her involvement, and thus proof of her dishonesty on the committee questionnaire.

“Tracy Stone-Manning lied to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee by claiming the tree spiking was ‘alleged’ and that she was never investigated,” Barrasso said in a statement. “Now, we have confirmation that neither of those things are true. President Biden must withdraw her nomination.”

But Stone-Manning’s supporters also have stepped up.

Two former BLM directors under Democratic presidents, Neil Kornze, the agency’s last Senate-confirmed director under President Barack Obama, and Jim Baca, who led it during President Bill Clinton’s administration, endorsed Stone-Manning in a guest column in the Salt Lake Tribune.

“There is only one conclusion here, of which two former BLM directors can assure you,” they wrote. “America’s public lands, and all those who use and enjoy them, will not get a better or fairer Director of the Bureau of Land Management than Tracy Stone-Manning.”

The column did not directly address the tree-spiking incident, but did mention her work with Republicans in Montana throughout her career, including as Bullock’s chief of staff and head of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.

The column revealed a split between Baca and Kornze and Obama’s other BLM director, Bob Abbey. States Newsroom first reported last month that Abbey in an interview said the tree-spiking incident should disqualify Stone-Manning.

Although the hunting group Dallas Safari Club withdrew its support for her this week, Stone-Manning has otherwise retained support from conservation and outdoors groups.

“Tracy Stone-Manning is as exceptionally qualified to lead the Bureau of Land Management today as she was the day President Biden nominated her,” National Wildlife Federation spokesman Mike Saccone said in an email.

“Republicans, Democrats and independents with whom she has worked can attest to the fact that Tracy has the deep experience and collaborative approach needed to ensure our public lands are managed for benefit of all users. We look forward to working with her after she’s confirmed in the coming weeks.”

Rare confirmation scuffle

The extended battle over her confirmation has been relatively rare for Senate-confirmed positions during Biden’s presidency.

Biden has officially withdrawn only one other major nominee — also a woman who rankled Republicans though her nomination suffered the biggest setback when Manchin opposed her.

That was the former Center for American Progress director Neera Tanden, whom Biden had nominated to lead the Office of Management and Budget, according to Terry Sullivan, the executive director of the nonpartisan White House Transition Project. The organization tracks 978 significant Senate-confirmed positions in the executive branch.

Going back to Ronald Reagan, the average president had withdrawn four nominees for such positions by this point in a presidency, with that number generally moving higher in recent years, Sullivan said. President Donald Trump had pulled seven and Obama 10.

During the length of his presidency, Trump withdrew more nominees than the previous five combined, Sullivan said.

Typically, presidents yank nominees who didn’t disclose something from their past during the vetting process, Sullivan said. A blemish on a nominee’s record may be fine, as long as the nominee is upfront about it.

“By withholding that information the person has removed the President’s right to have the full picture and THAT, not the prior recklessness, is an unforgivable sin,” Sullivan wrote in an email to States Newsroom.

Stone-Manning’s Republican critics, including Barrasso, have tried to make the 1989 episode an example of a nominee withholding information.

But when Stone-Manning’s involvement with the tree-spiking attempt resurfaced on a national level, on the conservative news site The Daily Caller, last month, the Biden administration seemed to categorize it as a nominee being transparent about her record.

“She has always been honest and transparent about this matter,” an administration official familiar with the matter but not authorized to speak publicly said at the time.

The official said Friday the administration’s support had not changed.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.