By Amy Harder

WASHINGTON -- Following a polite, sometimes even humorous confirmation hearing Thursday, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is likely to receive enough congressional support to be confirmed to lead the Energy Department, despite once calling for its elimination.

Mr. Perry, who faced scrutiny on issues from budget cuts to nuclear waste to climate change before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he regrets his call several years ago to eliminate the Energy Department. He also cracked a joke about forgetting the agency's name entirely during a 2011 debate.

Mr. Perry faced ridicule in 2011 after forgetting, during a presidential GOP primary debate, that the Energy Department was one of three federal agencies he had promised to eliminate were he elected president. Mr. Perry listed the Education and Commerce departments, before drawing a blank on Energy and saying, "Oops."

A few minutes later Mr. Perry belatedly added, "By the way, that was the Department of Energy I was reaching for a while ago," but the moment effectively ended his campaign.

On Thursday, Mr. Perry said he now appreciates the department and what it does.

"My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking," Mr. Perry said. "In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination."

Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), who served as West Virginia governor when Mr. Perry was Texas governor, introduced him, and other Democrats traded polite exchanges Mr. Perry. The atmosphere contrasted starklywith the nearly unified Democratic opposition to Mr. Trump's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, who faced nearly seven hours of criticism in his confirmation hearing Wednesday.

Despite that opposition, Mr. Pruitt, along with Mr. Perry and the Interior Department pick, Rep. Ryan Zinke (R., Mont.), are all expected to be confirmed, largely because Republicans hold a 52-48 Senate majority.

In Thursday's hearing, most Democrats expressed more concern over comments Mr. Trump had made, or rumored plans by his transition team, than over Mr. Perry's own record.

Democrats asked about a Thursday article in The Hill newspaper, which reported that the Energy Department was among the federal agencies targeted by the Trump transition team for drastic budget cuts. Offices within the department that oversee electricity, energy efficiency, renewable energy and fossil energy could all be scrapped, according to the article.

"I'm not going to tell you I'm going to be 1000% successful" in defending the department's budget, Mr. Perry said.

More than half of the Energy Department's annual budget of around $30 billion goes to protecting the U.S. nuclear arsenal and cleaning up nuclear waste and contamination sites around the country. Much of the rest goes to research and to funding such offices as those reportedly on the chopping block.

Noting that Mr. Perry had said a few minutes earlier he would support an "all-of-the-above" energy plan as secretary, Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii said, "Hard to see how we can pursue an all-of-the-above strategy if so much of the department's all-the-above" efforts are cut.

Ms. Hirono then asked Mr. Perry if he supported the rumored cuts. He responded by joking about his 2011 "oops" gaffe, but didn't directly answer the question.

"Maybe they will have the same experience I had and forget they said that," said Mr. Perry, prompting laughter in the hearing room.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), pressed Mr. Perry on climate change. While the former governor has made comments in the past saying he doubted the "theory" about climate change, his comments both to Mr. Sanders and in his prepared remarks were closer to the scientific consensus that human activity is a major contributor to climate change.

"I believe the climate is changing. I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is also caused by man-made activity," Mr. Perry said. "The question is how do we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn't compromise economic growth, the affordability of energy, or American jobs."

In his written testimony, Mr. Perry noted that as Texas governor he advocated for cleaner production of fossil fuels and renewable energy too, especially wind.

In response to a second round of questioning by Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.), Mr. Perry said he didn't have enough classified information to comment on the Iran nuclear deal, which Mr. Trump has said should be scrapped.

"Nonproliferation is a good thing in a general sense," Mr. Perry said. "I have not had a classified briefing yet."

The Franken-Perry exchange was decidedly more serious than their first round, when Mr. Perry inadvertently made a loaded reference to Mr. Franken.

Referring to an earlier office meeting between the two, Mr. Perry said, "I hope you're as much fun on that dais as you were on your couch." He quickly added, "May I rephrase that?" as Mr. Franken said, "My Lord."

Natalie Andrews contributed to this article.

Write to Amy Harder at amy.harder@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 19, 2017 15:53 ET (20:53 GMT)

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