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Political Notebook

Senate confirms Biden’s choice for UN ambassador

Linda Thomas-Greenfield testified during for her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield testified during for her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month.Michael Reynolds/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Senate confirmed President Biden’s choice to lead US diplomacy at the United Nations on Tuesday. The vote for Linda Thomas-Greenfield reflected a divide between the Biden administration’s determination to re-engage with the world body and former president Donald Trump’s diplomacy that often left the US isolated internationally.

Senators voted 78 to 20 to confirm Thomas-Greenfield to the post, which will be a Cabinet-level position.

Thomas-Greenfield, a retired 35-year veteran of the foreign service who resigned during the Trump administration, will be the third Black person and second Black woman to hold the job.

Many Republicans opposed her because they said she was soft on China and would not stand up for US principles at the United Nations. Thomas-Greenfield had rejected those concerns during her confirmation hearing, telling senators that a 2019 speech she gave to the Chinese-funded Confucius Institute had been a mistake and was not intended to be an endorsement of Chinese government policies.

In the speech, she had praised China’s $1 trillion Belt and Road global infrastructure program in Africa and called for “a win-win-win situation” where the US and China would promote good governance and the rule of law.

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She told senators that China is a strategic adversary and “their actions threaten our security, they threaten our values and they threaten our way of life, and they are a threat to their neighbors and they are a threat across the globe.”

Thomas-Greenfield spoke of China’s diplomatic inroads during the Trump administration, which pursued an “America First” policy that weakened international alliances. And she made clear there will be a change under Biden to re-engage internationally and promote American values.

She stressed that American leadership must be rooted in the country’s core values — “support for democracy, respect for universal human rights, and the promotion of peace and security.” And, she said that effective diplomacy means developing “robust relationships,” finding common ground and managing differences, and “doing genuine, old-fashioned, people-to-people diplomacy.”

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The Senate also voted 92 to 7 Tuesday to approve Biden’s nomination of Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary — his second go at the job.

Vilsack had been expected to have a smooth path to confirmation after the Senate Agriculture Committee voted unanimously this month to advance his nomination, and many Republicans voted in favor of his confirmation Tuesday, including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Senator Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina.

Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont, broke with Democrats to vote against Vilsack’s nomination.

Vilsack had faced intense criticism from civil rights activists, who said that he did not go far enough to eradicate racial discrimination at the agency or support farmers of color during his first stint in the role in the Obama administration.

Associated Press and Washington Post

Nominee for health post vows action on coverage, drug costs

WASHINGTON — Health secretary nominee Xavier Becerra told senators Tuesday that confronting the coronavirus pandemic will be his first priority if confirmed, but he also pledged to expand health insurance, rein in prescription drug costs, and reduce racial and ethnic disparities in medical care.

“To meet this moment, we need strong federal leadership,” Becerra said at the first of two hearings on his nomination. “I understand the enormous challenges before us and our solemn responsibility to faithfully steward this agency that touches almost every aspect of our lives.”

Becerra now serves as California’s attorney general and previously represented the Los Angeles area for more than 20 years in the US House. A liberal politician-lawyer, he faces opposition from many GOP senators, who question his support for abortion rights and government-run health insurance, along with his lack of a clinical background. However, in the past 25 years, only one medical doctor has led the Department of Health and Human Services in a permanent capacity.

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Appearing before the Senate health committee, Becerra seconded President Biden’s goals of 100 million vaccine shots in his first 100 days, increased coronavirus testing, ramped-up DNA mapping of the virus to track worrisome mutations, and reopening schools and businesses.

On health insurance, he pledged to work to expand the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, though in the past he’s supported a government-run system like Senator Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All idea. He said he would act to lower drug prices, particularly the cost of insulin. It’s a goal that has bipartisan backing. Republican Senator Mike Braun of Indiana noted that Becerra seems to have no drug industry support, adding, “I think I know why.”

Although leading Republicans are portraying Becerra as unfit, Democrats seem unfazed about his prospects, accusing the GOP of playing politics despite the urgency of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

Associated Press

Haaland pressed to explain past remarks on drilling

Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico, President Biden’s pick to head the Interior Department, sought Tuesday to find the line between her past remarks as an activist opposing the fossil fuel industry, and her prospective role at the helm of an agency that oversees drilling and conservation on the nation’s more than 500 million acres of public land.

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In the first day of a two-part confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy Committee, Haaland’s most important audience was the panel’s chair, Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia., who has often sided with Republicans on environmental policy as he seeks to protect his home state’s coal industry.

Privately, however, Democrats have warned Manchin against being seen as derailing the candidacy of Haaland, who, if confirmed, would make history as the first Native American Cabinet secretary.

During his opening statement, Manchin signaled a cautious willingness to support her nomination.

“As a former governor, I have always believed that a president should be given wide latitude in the selection of his Cabinet,” he said. “But I also take the Senate’s constitutional obligation to advise and consent to the president’s nominations seriously.”

Manchin asked Haaland if she supports the idea of US energy independence, to which she said, “We want to move forward with innovation,” but added, “That’s not going to happen overnight. We will still rely on fossil fuel energy.”

Manchin replied, “I’m totally committed to innovation, not elimination.”

Haaland has previously called for a total ban on all fossil fuel exploration on public lands, and if confirmed, she would be charged with executing one of Biden’s most contentious policies: halting future hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for oil and gas on public lands.

Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the energy committee’s ranking Republican, said that while her nomination deserved to be recognized for its historic nature, he was troubled by some of her views that he said would be viewed as “radical” in his home state.

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“If Representative Haaland intends to use the Department of the Interior to crush the economy of Wyoming and other Western states, then I’m going to oppose the nomination,” Barrasso said.

Barrasso and other Republicans pressed Haaland about some of her past remarks, such as a 2019 interview in which she said, “I am wholeheartedly against fracking and drilling on public lands.”

Haaland stressed that, if confirmed, she would enact Biden’s policies of pausing future fracking — rather than a full ban.

“If I’m confirmed as secretary, it’s President Biden’s agenda, not my own agenda, that I would be moving forward,” she said.

New York Times