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Maria Cantwell: Interior nominee David Bernhardt won't be accused of being a vegetarian

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The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's ranking member Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., used an Obama-era anecdote to pledge that questions will stick to substantive matters such as conflict of interest. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President Trump's nominee to serve as deputy interior secretary, David Bernhardt, won't be rejected for being a vegetarian, but he may be for conflict of interest, said the Senate energy panel's top Democrat, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington.

"I'm reminded of various nominees that appeared before this committee and the various issues that my [Republican] colleagues have brought up during the Obama administration," Cantwell said at Thursday's confirmation hearing for Berhardt at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "For example, people on the committee rejected nominees from the Obama administration for simply having worked for a national environmental group, having served on the board of an environmental group, and in one case for simply being a vegetarian."

She added that those "rejections for disqualifying a nominee were patently absurd and they remain so today." Cantwell added: "I don't think they are going to be the ones brought up today."

Cantwell was responding to Republican concerns that the confirmation process of Trump's nominees has become far too contentious. Cantwell used the Obama-era anecdote as a segue to pledge that her and other Democrats' questions for Bernhardt will stick to substantive matters such as conflict of interest, or the appearance of those conflicts, based on his private practice representing fossil fuel and energy companies.

"But because of the extensive background Mr. Bernhardt has had in the private sector, these issues of conflict of interest, or appearance of conflict of interest, will be the subject of my questions today," Cantwell said.

She said she is "not suggesting that working in the private sector disqualifies someone from the public sector."

Cantwell said this month that she is "gravely concerned about Mr. Bernhardt's record of working on behalf of corporations at the expense of the environment, and his history at the Department of the Interior during years plagued by ethical scandals."

She added that the committee "must do its job in closely scrutinizing his record and any conflicts of interest that run contrary to protecting the public interest and upholding the stewardship responsibilities entrusted to the department, on behalf of the American people."