Senate panel approves Trump's pick for Interior Dept.

(Reuters) - A key Senate committee approved U.S. President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Interior on Thursday, putting former energy lobbyist David Bernhardt closer to becoming the permanent head of the agency that oversees public lands.

Former energy lobbyist David Bernhardt testifies before a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on his nomination of to be Interior secretary, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 28, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

The Republican-controlled energy and natural resources committee voted 14 to 6 in favor of advancing Bernhardt’s nomination. A full Senate vote must now be scheduled to complete his confirmation. He is currently serving as DOI’s acting secretary.

Bernhardt cleared the committee vote, as expected, despite concerns raised by some Democratic lawmakers and environmental groups about his conflicts of interest as a former lobbyist representing companies affected by Interior department regulations.

The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General is reviewing allegations that Bernhardt violated ethics rules by getting involved in issues that affect his former clients.

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden urged colleagues not to vote for Bernhardt until the watchdog agency has reviewed the allegations but Senate energy panel chair Lisa Murkowski said the acting secretary was being attacked by political opponents.

“I think its very clear you have well-funded groups that are working hard, working energetically against his nomination,” she said ahead of the vote.

Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Martin Heinrich, as well as Angus King, an independent who usually votes with Democrats, voted to back Bernhardt.

A recent report by the New York Times said that Bernhardt had intervened to promote policies sought by a former client, agribusiness firm Westlands Water District, including weakening of Endangered Species Act protections for an imperiled fish when he should have recused himself.

Bernhardt has said he followed Interior ethics guidelines.

Wyden said after previous Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned from Interior amid ethics investigations, the committee should focus on “restoring honor and integrity to the office of interior secretary.”

Several coastal state senators concerned about Interior’s upcoming proposal to open up vast swaths of federal waters to offshore drilling are expected to ask Bernhardt for assurances that their state coastlines will be left out of the plan.

Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott have asked for meetings with Bernhardt ahead of the Senate vote to ask for assurances that Florida will not be included in the plan, Senate aides told Reuters.

Reporting by Valreie Volcovici and Nichola Groom; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Susan Thomas