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Bush Walks a Political Tightrope on EPA

If he picks a moderate, it could anger industry allies. A conservative could aid Democrats.

May 23, 2003|Aaron Zitner and Gary Polakovic | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — At an annual dinner attended by the political elite, President Bush last year aimed a few zingers at the woman he had named administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Christie Whitman, he noted in a humorous speech, had given him a Scottish terrier.

And in return, Bush said, "I gave her EPA. Now we both have messes to clean up."

Today, the EPA itself has the potential to become a mess for the president -- or at least a political challenge. The administration faces significant political risks as it goes about nominating a successor to Whitman, who announced her resignation Wednesday.

If the president chooses someone with moderate views on the role of environmental regulation, he could anger his industry allies and Republican ideologues, some of whom want to scale back requirements on business.

But if the administration names a sharp critic of environmental regulation, it could hand Democrats an issue to use against the president in the next election.

"First of all, you have the nomination process .... A high-profile nomination battle gets a higher profile with the public. It gets on Page 1," said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Science Committee.

And a prominent debate on the environment would favor Democrats, said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.

"On an issue like this, there's more potential for mobilizing Democrats than Republicans," Pitney said.

"Unlike with education, Republicans have very little opportunity to seize the environment as an issue of their own. So, the best they can hope for is to keep it off the front page."

While few voters place the environment at the top of their list of concerns, surveys show that it is part of a constellation of issues, along with abortion and gun control, that Democrats have used to win coveted suburban voters outside the South.

"If their main concern is shoring up support from suburban voters in the 2004 election ... then I think he will choose a moderate establishment type who supports more regulation if it is done properly," said Myron Ebell, a specialist on global warming issues at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Whitman, a former New Jersey governor, was chosen in part to help Bush appeal to moderate Republican voters. But her experience at the EPA might serve as a lesson if another moderate takes that job.

Views on environmental rules tend to be polarized, and Whitman seemed to please few of the EPA's constituencies. She was often out of step with the White House but enjoyed little support from environmentalists, who objected to the administration's withdrawal from negotiations on a global warming treaty and its rewriting of industrial pollution rules. At the same time, industry groups were not big supporters either.

'Awkward Situation'

"It's a tough slot to fill, and the Bush administration -- they're damned both ways," said William Kovacs, vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"If they put someone in who is pro-business, the Democrats are going to go crazy. And if they put someone in who is pro-green, I'm not sure what the Republicans would do, but that person would have a very difficult time working with the rest of the Cabinet. So it's a very awkward situation."

The ideological battle over Whitman's replacement is already underway.

"There are two camps fighting for the president's attention: those who believe that you have to be credible to the center going into the next election, and those who believe you can't please the environmentalists, no matter what you do," said Douglas Wheeler, resources secretary under former California Gov. Pete Wilson.

People following the matter cited David B. Struhs, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, as someone who could credibly claim to be moderate and incur few political risks. Before his Florida post, Struhs was an environmental official under former Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts, a moderate Republican. He also is a former consultant to a gas and electric utility.

By contrast, former Michigan Gov. John Engler, a Republican and another possible candidate, is seen as more aligned with business interests, said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a policy advocacy group in Washington that has been critical of Bush's environmental stance. Cook said he believed this because Engler's environmental chief in Michigan was "very conservative, pro-business and antiregulation."

Several other people have been cited as potential nominees by federal officials, and business and environmental groups.

Anyone considering the job should not view it as a stepping stone to elected office, several observers said. Nearly every decision by the EPA chief has the potential to anger a large group of people while pleasing few others.

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