Senate Democrats thwarted today's committee confirmation vote for U.S. EPA administrator nominee Mike Leavitt by boycotting the session, an unprecedented move aimed at obtaining more thorough responses from the Utah governor regarding his views on issues he would deal with if put at the helm of EPA.
The unusual tactic was greeted harshly by Senate Republicans, who characterized the boycott as "insulting" and part of an attempt to infuse the confirmation process with presidential politics. Two committee Democrats, Sens. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and Bob Graham (Fla.), are running for their party's nomination to face President Bush in 2004.
Senate EPW ranking member James Jeffords (I-Vt.), the only lawmaker from the minority to attend today's meeting, said Democrats were seeking a two-week delay on the vote not because they were concerned with Leavitt's qualifications to run EPA, but so they could obtain complete answers to some 400 questions submitted following last week's hearing on the nomination.
Jeffords also said the delay would give EPA more time to turn over policy-related materials he has been seeking since early 2001 concerning the administration's Clean Air Act New Source Review permit rulemakings.
"The American public needs answers," Jeffords said. "The Bush administration is weakening the Clean Air Act, it is weakening the Clean Water Act, and it is not cleaning up Superfund sites. We have a right to know why. These are life and death issues."
Jeffords and the panel's other eight Democrats sent a letter to committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) yesterday saying the responses they received from Leavitt often take noncommittal positions on matters ranging from climate change to Clean Air Act reform and Superfund.
While Inhofe initially rejected the request for a delay, he said at the end of today's meeting that he would reschedule the vote for Oct. 15. A Senate Democratic aide said Democrats would not commit to attending the Oct. 15 meeting until the information they seek is handed over.
Given the makeup of the GOP-led committee, Leavitt has sufficient support to pass the EPW panel. In a symbolic move, Republicans voted 10-0 today to approve the nomination. But for an official vote, two minority members must be present to establish a quorum.
Inhofe opened today's hearing by charging that Democrats were holding Leavitt up to a double standard compared with two previous EPA administrator nominees, the Clinton administration's Carol Browner and Christie Whitman, the Bush administration's first EPA chief.
Leavitt's written answers were similar in scope to those from both Browner and Whitman, Inhofe said. Additionally, any definitive statements made by Leavitt on EPA policy could put the agency in a precarious legal position if it decided to take a different position and then wound up being sued in court.
Democrats submitted about 350 questions to Leavitt, far more than the 30 sent to Browner and the 90 to Whitman, Inhofe said.
"I think the presidential year started early this time around," Inhofe said. "I'm sure that's the reason this is all going on."
A White House Council on Environmental Quality spokeswoman declined comment on the Democrats' tactics but said the Bush administration continues to seek a quick confirmation. The spokeswoman noted that Leavitt has already met personally with all members of the EPW panel, except Lieberman, and added that Leavitt is in Washington today and plans to meet with seven more senators.
If Leavitt's nomination does move out of committee, it is still expected to face significant obstacles. At least five senators have said they will place procedural holds on the nomination until their individual concerns are dealt with by the Bush administration. None of the blocks concern Leavitt specifically, even while environmentalists continue to press that the governor's state record shows he would not be a good choice to become the agency's 10th administrator.
The White House does have other options for Leavitt if he cannot overcome the current obstacles. If the nomination makes it past committee but is blocked from a floor vote, an administration supporter can file a cloture motion to lift the hold, opening up 30 hours of debate that ends with a 60-vote threshold requirement. After that, another 30 hours of debate would be followed by a majority vote. The cloture process, however, may prove to be policially painful considering the chamber's otherwise clogged agenda and the fact it would provide Democrats a prime public forum to prolong debate on Bush's environmental record.
Democrats are also wary of a recess appointment, which would allow Leavitt to take office for the remainder of the 108th Congress and potentially through the end of Bush's current term in January 2005. While Inhofe aides have rejected the recess appointment scenario because it bucks Senate tradition when done for non-judicial positions, one industry source said the option may not be so difficult to consider now that the Democrats have made the unprecedented move of boycotting a committee vote. "Democrats have lowered the bar," said Frank Maisano, a spokesman for the utility industry.