The Senate's top global warming skeptic is confident he'll reclaim the gavel of the Environment and Public Works Committee next year, and he's got big plans in store.
"I'll be chairman," Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe said in an interview yesterday.
Inhofe was chairman of the panel from 2003 to 2007 and has served as ranking member since Democrats seized control of the chamber and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) took the gavel.
With an outside chance that Republicans will win back the Senate this fall, Inhofe is already making plans to overhaul the powerful panel.
His top priority, he says, is to stop "wasting time" on global warming hearings and get down to business on issues he says have been neglected, like overseeing U.S. EPA and passing major transportation and water infrastructure bills.
"We haven't really been doing anything because they've been wasting all of our time on all that silly stuff, all the hearings on global warming and all that," Inhofe said.
He wants to start probing some EPA regulations that he called "pretty outrageous," like rules dealing with airborne dust and lead in ammunition. Inhofe said he is also eager to hold investigations into who is really pulling the strings at the agency -- Administrator Lisa Jackson or White House climate and energy advisor Carol Browner, a former EPA chief.
"I'd like to know when you have someone who is put in a czar position and is not confirmed, just what their role is and what is her relation to Lisa Jackson," he said.
Inhofe also wants to scrap some of the subcommittees that Democrats created when Boxer took over.
When Inhofe was in charge, the panel had four subcommittees: Transportation and Infrastructure; Clean Air, Climate Change and Nuclear Safety; Fisheries, Wildlife and Water; and Superfund and Waste Management.
Boxer renamed several of those panels and created three new subcommittees: Children's Health; Green Jobs and the New Economy; and Oversight.
"I think we need to restructure the committees," Inhofe said. "Maybe back the way they were before, because if you get too many of them it gets a bit out of hand."
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), ranking member of the EPW oversight panel, said he would be thrilled to see Inhofe take charge.
"I'm all for it. I'm all for it. I would love to serve on the committee with Senator Inhofe as chairman. I think he'd be absolutely terrific," Barrasso said yesterday.
Democrats and environmentalists, however, are far from eager to see Inhofe reclaim the gavel.
"Since he denies the existence of global warming as a problem and shows no concern about carbon pollution, I think on the biggest environmental issue of the day, we would, as a committee, likely be found wanting," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee.
Frank O'Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, said Inhofe's return would be "a return to the Dark Ages" on global warming.
The panel could see some major leadership changes even if Democrats retain control of the chamber, as Boxer struggles to keep her seat as California's junior senator.
Boxer is facing a tough re-election battle against wealthy Republican Carly Fiorina, and a Rasmussen Reports poll released last week showed the two candidates in a dead heat.
Should Boxer lose but Democrats keep the majority, the leadership post is widely expected to go to Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who is the third most senior Democrat on the committee after Boxer and Sen. Max Baucus of Montana. Carper could also become the ranking member if Boxer is defeated and the Democrats lose their majority.
Either way, Baucus would likely want to keep his post as the chairman -- or the ranking Democrat -- of the powerful Finance Committee.
Carper, chairman of the Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee, is known for his work on air pollution issues and has co-authored a series of bipartisan bills aimed at slashing harmful pollutants from power plants. He is also known for reaching across the aisle, and he is widely viewed as more moderate than Boxer.
"Carper's a different person," Inhofe said. "He would have more of a position toward the middle than Barbara. Barbara tends to be more polarized on the far left than he is. So in that respect, that might make it easier on some of these issues. There are some areas where we may want to compromise a little bit, and he would be more inclined to do that."
O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch said "it would be a good thing in a lot of respects" if Carper took the reigns of the EPW Committee, in part because Boxer is perceived as highly partisan.
"I think it is one of the little dark secrets that's never discussed is that people all think Barbara Boxer is fantastic when it comes to content but she's lacking when it comes to leadership and style," he said. By contrast, O'Donnell added, "Carper's a moderate but he's a guy who has a proven track record of working with people from both parties."
Other environmentalists say Boxer has done the best she could on a highly polarized committee.
"Because there's so much focus on energy and the energy battles, people often overlook the work that she's done on a bipartisan basis to build consensus on a very tough committee," said Jeremy Symons, senior vice president for conservation and education at the National Wildlife Federation.
"Basically, Senator Boxer has been a champion on clean water and clean energy, and people give her a lot less credit than she deserves for building consensus and moving legislation forward."
Democrats on the panel rallied around the California Democrat, refusing to comment on how the committee would look without her.
"I won't speculate on that," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats, called Boxer "one of the strongest environmentalists in the U.S. Congress."
"She has played a fantastic role in protecting the environment and in trying to transform our energy system," Sanders said. "I have absolute confidence that the people of California are going to re-elect her. I have absolute confidence that she's going to remain as the chairperson of our committee."
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