Rick Perry promised to fight proposed cuts to the Energy Department during Senate testimony on Thursday, breaking with ideas proposed by President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team.
In response to questions from Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono, Perry said he was committed to climate change research and would promote it if confirmed as secretary of energy.
Hirono said the Trump transition team wanted to eliminate the Department of Energy’s offices for electricity, fossil energy, and energy efficiency and renewable energy.
“How can we pursue an all-of-the-above strategy if so much of the department’s . . . capabilities are eliminated? Do you support those cuts?” Hirono asked.
“Maybe they’ll have the same experience I had and forget that they said that,” Perry said of the Trump team’s proposal to cut major portions of the department’s budget.
Perry was referencing his infamous 2011 debate performance in which he forgot to name the Energy Department as one of three Cabinet-level agencies he wanted to eliminate.
Perry’s hearing in front of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Thursday lacked some of the heated exchanges that punctuated the hearings of Trump nominees like Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos and Secretary of State pick Rex Tillerson.
Instead, Perry used humor and folksy rhetoric, emblematic of his long tenure in Texas politics, to deflect questions asking him about the impact of climate change from independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota.
“Governor, thank you so much for coming into my office. Did you enjoy meeting me?” Franken asked Perry.
“I hope you are as much fun on that dais as you were on your couch,” Perry replied, which led to widespread laughter throughout the chamber.
“May I rephrase that, sir?” Perry said.
“Please. Please. Please. Oh, my Lord. Oh, my Lord,” Franken replied.
“Well, I think we’ve found our ‘Saturday Night Live’ soundbite,” Perry said, referring to Franken’s previous career as a late-night comic.
Perry declined to identify climate change as a crisis when pressed by Sanders, but he did say that humans play a role in climate change.
The former Texas governor emphasized that states should play a leading role in setting environmental and energy regulations but said the Department of Energy should have a large role in promoting research in concert with private actors and universities.
And Perry said he would not go after employees in the department who had worked on President Barack Obama’s climate change research, something feared when the Trump team requested information on the employees after the election.
“My commitment to you, and the members of this committee, is to obviously not only reach across the political aisles but also to work with the men and women who I have an extraordinary amount of respect for at the Department of Energy to find the solutions to these many challenges that we have,” Perry said.
Multiple senators on the committee questioned Perry on local issues, notably the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility in Nevada, from which federal funding was cut off in 2011 following fierce opposition from the state’s politicians.
“Any attempt to resurrect Yucca Mountain will result in relentless opposition,” said Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.
Perry said Yucca Mountain “can’t be used as a political football” but did not offer an alternative plan for a long-term nuclear waste storage site.
The Iran nuclear deal also came up during the hearing, but Perry deflected questions from Franken over whether he would support the pact, which sitting Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz played a large role in devising.
“I think nonproliferation is a good thing, but I have not had a classified briefing yet,” Perry said, adding that he would have a better idea of his position in the coming months if confirmed.
Perry received a bipartisan introduction of support from Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn and West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who met Perry when they served as governors of their respective states.
During his opening statement, Perry said he regretted once advocating for eliminating the Energy Department while running for president.
“In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination,” Perry said.
The former longtime Texas governor and two-time presidential candidate is not expected to receive serious opposition from Senate Democrats, and was even offered a salute by independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, who caucuses with Democrats, as King left the room during the hearing.
The Department of Energy oversees the nation’s nuclear program, scientific research and energy conservation programs.
Perry would be the third Texan to serve in the Cabinet-level position if confirmed.