Partisan tensions are escalating over the nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R) to lead U.S. EPA, with Democrats likely to hold their own additional hearing to press their concerns over his record.
Delware Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said members of his party wanted more information about Pruitt's record than what's likely to emerge at his confirmation hearing next week.
Carper said he had proposed having outside witnesses testify at the hearing, but after being rebuffed by Republicans, he will likely go it alone and hold a separate session on Pruitt.
Carper noted that the Senate Judiciary Committee had recently brought in outside witnesses to testify on Donald Trump's attorney general nominee, Jeff Sessions, a Republican senator from Alabama.
"I am not going to call it a shadow hearing, I am going to call it a sunshine hearing," said Carper, who did not name specific witnesses he would call.
He said the hearing, which would not be a formal EPW Committee event, could include people who have worked with Pruitt in the past as well as independent experts on EPA and state relationships.
Carper said he hopes Republicans will attend, although he said he has yet to announce the forum or invite members of the majority. Carper said his goal was to use the hearing to educate senators on Pruitt's true record as AG on environmental issues.
Like many Democrats and those in the green community, Carper said he was most worried about Pruitt's tenure in Oklahoma, where he led a lawsuit filed by several states challenging EPA's Clean Power Plan.
"Right now we are an in information-gathering mode, I have grave concerns about this man and grave concerns about his track record, his disinterest in relying on science, we don't even know where he gets his input on science," Carper explained.
Carper said he is usually inclined to let presidents pick their Cabinet, but Pruitt's record seems far out of the mainstream.
Carper said he has a "gentlemen's agreement" with EPW Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) to hold off on voting on the nomination in committee until Pruitt provides answers to more than 50 questions raised by Democrats and his FBI background report is complete.
In brief comments yesterday, Barrasso seemed unfazed by Democratic concerns. "I expect there to be some very forceful questioning and a good give and take. People will have an opportunity to express their views and then we'll figure it out and see how they go," he said.
Late yesterday evening, Carper and other EPW Democrats reiterated their call for information about Pruitt's potential ties to "dark money" political and pro-fossil fuel groups.
The lawmakers sent a letter to the Office of Government Ethics and another to EPA's ethics official raising questions about potential conflicts of interest.
"All Americans should have confidence that EPA's decisions are made transparently, without favor to political donors, and by an Administrator who is committed to protecting the prerogatives and mission of the agency, not those suing it," they wrote.
Conservative, free-market group America Rising Squared called the Democratic lawmakers hypocrites. "This group of Democratic senators are puppets of the environmentalist left, and their strings have been activated to oppose Scott Pruitt's EPA reform efforts," said Jeremy Adler, communications director at America Rising.
"Instead of doing the bidding of these out-of-touch, extreme groups, Senate Democrats on the EPW Committee should return the combined $4.7 million that has been dumped into their campaign accounts or recuse themselves from next week's hearing in the interest of fairness and accountability," he said.
One moderate Democratic senator facing a tough re-election fight in 2018, North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp, said yesterday that she was undecided on whether she will support Pruitt.
"I don't know yet, but we certainly had a very candid and very direct and nerdy conversation about energy," she said of her meeting with Pruitt earlier this week. She noted they discussed their shared background as AGs in executing state law.
As he has with other Midwestern senators who are wary of his opposition to the federal renewable fuels standard (RFS), Pruitt told Heitkamp he would stick with it.
"I've spent enough time with folks from Oklahoma to know they don't like the RFS, but I will tell you this: I explained to him the shortages and the challenges that we have right now with low commodity prices and how this disruption in the RFS market has driven prices in a direction that we don't want to see," said Heitkamp, who noted Pruitt nodded his head when she asked if he understood the need to follow the RFS.
Heitkamp said they both also had a good, lengthy discussion about the need for a long-term energy development and environmental protection strategy rather than one that changes with each election.
While Heitkamp was noncommittal about her support for Pruitt, at least one other moderate Democrat from an energy-producing state, Sen. Joe Manchin, is backing him.
"I believe the attorney general has the right experience for the position and look forward to his confirmation process," the West Virginia senator said in a statement.
Carper said one of his reasons for pressing for a more detailed review of Pruitt is to let moderates in both parties know what's at stake if they approve him.
With Democrats holding a two-seat deficit in the Senate, Carper would need to pick off at least four Republicans to oppose Pruitt if Manchin backs him.
More liberal Democrats and those in the green community don't need convincing and have been quick to pounce. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), an EPW Committee member, said he was doubtful Pruitt would be able to rein in his antipathy for the agency he hopes to lead at next week's hearing.
"He has made it his primary professional mission to undermine the authorities the EPA operates under, and so I can't imagine that he's going to try to hide that," Schatz said.
Meanwhile, in a departure from its normal practice of sending a letter to the full Senate immediately before a floor vote, the League of Conservation Voters yesterday urged senators to oppose Pruitt.
"Given Scott Pruitt's radical record and the far-reaching damage he could do at the helm of the EPA, this is not the time for standard protocol," the group said in a letter, warning that the confirmation vote will count in how it scores lawmakers.
"The mission of the Environmental Protection Agency is to protect human health and the environment — our air, water, and land. Unfortunately, Scott Pruitt's record is completely antithetical to this vitally important mission," LCV wrote.
Reporter Hannah Hess contributed.