Environmental and industry sources alike have praised current U.S. EPA air chief Gina McCarthy, President Obama's pick to head the agency, for her regulatory knowledge, straight-shooting personality and willingness to engage all sides.
But McCarthy's open style may not matter when it comes to her confirmation in the Senate, since the process offers Republicans one of their best opportunities to weigh in on Obama's environmental regulations.
"I have great reservations about her," Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said when asked about McCarthy's nomination. "She seems to want to write the law rather than apply ... what the legislation happens to be."
Barrasso delayed McCarthy's 2009 confirmation to lead EPA's Office of Air and Radiation for a month over concerns that she had not properly answered questions about how EPA would regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Her nomination was eventually approved by voice vote after his hold was lifted.
Barrasso wouldn't say whether he or any Republican colleagues might consider placing a hold on her confirmation this time around, especially since a hearing in the Environment and Public Works Committee hasn't even been scheduled. But several have signaled that they will at least subject her to a serious line of questioning.
McCarthy was named yesterday to replace Lisa Jackson, a move that was widely anticipated. The nomination won general praise from officials both outside and inside the government, with supporters saying that McCarthy's experience doing the heavy lifting on air rules and working with the industry made her a strong pick.
But opponents have also railed against the choice as a signal that Obama will continue his regulatory push, including rules governing greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants and limiting the sulfur in gasoline on tap.
In a statement, EPW Committee ranking member David Vitter (R-La.) pointed to a number of outstanding inquiries to EPA, including questions about the science used to form air pollution standards and about the publication of EPA's regulatory agenda.
"The EPA is in desperate need of a leader who will stop ignoring congressional information requests, hiding emails and more from the public, and relying on flawed science," Vitter said. "McCarthy has been directly involved in much of that, but I hope she can reverse those practices with Lisa Jackson's departure. I look forward to hearing answers from her on a number of key issues."
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a staunch EPA critic, said he is holding off forming an opinion. Inhofe said he spoke to McCarthy on the phone yesterday and is trying to sit down with her sometime this week or next.
"I always had an excellent relationship with Lisa Jackson ... and I anticipate it will be the same way with Gina," Inhofe said. "There are areas where we disagree, but she always gave straightforward answers, and that's all I can ask."
Despite that reassurance, some observers say McCarthy could face trouble in the Senate. Elgie Holstein, senior director for strategic planning at the Environmental Defense Fund, said he expected to see some "unhappiness" around her confirmation.
"It's hard to say whether things will get as far as an actual hold," said Elgie Holstein, senior director for strategic planning at the Environmental Defense Fund. "But that unhappiness would be with the president's policies, not so much with her."
Even some Democrats indicated that concerns about EPA in general could hold up the process. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a strong coal supporter and frequent EPA opponent, said he felt McCarthy deserved a "fair hearing" but that he would have issues to bring up.
"You know my concerns about the EPA not having an all-in energy policy," Manchin said. "If we're talking about climate change and we're talking about the world consuming 8 billion tons of coal and the United States of America consuming less than 1 billion tons of coal, what's their proposal for cleaning up the environment on a global market?"
However, Democrats on the EPW Committee said they did not expect serious problems. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said he was pleased with the pick, calling McCarthy "well-qualified" and adding that she had an "incredible record." And Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said in a statement that she should be "confirmed without delay."
"Under the leadership of Lisa Jackson, the Obama Administration EPA has been a strong partner in helping to provide a cleaner environment in New Jersey and around the country, and I know that Ms. McCarthy will continue that mission to protect our environment and health," Lautenberg said.
EPW Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) yesterday said "the combination of her experience, intelligence, energy and unquestioned expertise will make Gina an effective EPA administrator."
She added, "Gina is the right person for the job, and we will move forward with her confirmation hearing as quickly as possible."
Reporter John McArdle contributed.