Senate starts recess, punts debate on EPA air nominee

By Kevin Bogardus, Emma Dumain, Sean Reilly | 12/20/2023 06:28 AM EST

A procedural vote on Joe Goffman is slated for early January. Senators headed for the exits as talks continued on national security spending and a border deal.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaks with reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead EPA’s air office will have to wait a few weeks longer for a confirmation vote.

Joe Goffman, whose nomination has been in limbo for almost two years, was poised to be confirmed this week alongside a host of other picks before the chamber gaveled out for 2023.

At the same time senators, eager to leave Washington for the holidays, late Tuesday night passed an extension of Federal Aviation Administration authorities and then swiftly adjourned.


They wrapped up legislative business for the year once it became clear a larger deal was not imminent on a supplemental national security and border legislative package, which could include nearly $3 billion for uranium fuel supplies.

The Senate’s abrupt departure will mean that floor votes on Goffman and a handful of other judicial and agency nominees will be punted into early January.

Goffman has been facing bipartisan opposition: All Republicans and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin have pledged to vote against him in protest against administration rulemaking against climate change, and there were rumblings some other moderate Democrats might be inclined to rebuff him, too.

However, a person familiar with the discussions — granted anonymity to speak candidly — told E&E News that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) was compelled to move Goffman to the front of the line for confirmation after learning last week that there would be 50 votes in his favor. Schumer moved Monday to schedule the vote.

Goffman was also due to benefit this week from the lopsided party ratio, which gave Democrats the advantage of being able to confirm nominees with a lower majority threshold.

On Tuesday afternoon, more than 30 GOP senators were recorded as “not voting” on several nominees — including former tribal official Sara Hill to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma and military officers. In contrast, only two Democrats were reported as absent: Sens. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Alex Padilla of California.

Sens. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who had pledged in the past to slow up the process for confirming Goffman, were among absentee Republicans.

It left Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) — who earlier this year placed holds on Goffman and other of the president’s EPA nominees because of a dispute over air quality in his home state — forced to concede Tuesday that there was little he and fellow GOP lawmakers could do to stop the likely outcome of Goffman’s confirmation.

“You see the votes? We don’t have the votes at all to block him,” Sullivan said. “There’s not a lot we can do. You see the number of Republicans who aren’t here right now? Our leverage is kind of very minimal.”

It won’t be as smooth sailing for Goffman next month. When senators return from the holiday recess the second week of January, assuming all are present and voting, Vice President Kamala Harris will likely have to visit the Capitol to break the tie.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, told reporters Tuesday he thought Goffman would be “narrowly confirmed, fingers crossed.”

Powerful office, no Senate-confirmed leader

Joseph Goffman.
Joseph Goffman on Capitol Hill in March. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

Goffman has served as acting head of the Office of Air and Radiation since Biden’s term began in January 2021.

With an annual budget of almost $1 billion and a workforce totaling about 1,800 employees, the office ranks as the most influential of EPA program realms, with steadily growing responsibilities for air quality and climate change regulations.

But that sweeping purview has also made the office a target for congressional Republicans and industry groups often opposed to any major new Clean Air Act regulations.

Since 2013, EPA has only had one Senate-confirmed air chief: Bill Wehrum, a Trump administration appointee who served from late 2017 through mid-2019 before abruptly resigning.

Lummis placed a preemptive hold on Goffman’s nomination — as well as those of other candidates for top agency posts — because of unhappiness with EPA’s handling of haze reduction requirements for her state’s largest coal-fired power plant.

Cassidy resorted to a similar maneuver because of what he called “unnecessary delays” by EPA in acting on Louisiana’s bid to have the lead on permitting carbon sequestration wells.

In a Tuesday email, a Lummis spokesperson said the senator’s hold remained in place, foreshadowing some turbulence in the coming weeks ahead of Goffman’s final confirmation. A Cassidy representative didn’t respond to a request for comment.