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Democrats Stage Boycott of Vote on EPA Nominee

Nine senators delay hearing to pressure the Bush administration for answers on health and regulatory policies.

October 02, 2003|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The eight Democrats and one Independent on a Senate committee boycotted a scheduled vote Wednesday on Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt's nomination to head the Environmental Protection Agency, delaying the panel's action by at least two weeks.

The nine senators, members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, complained that Leavitt had failed to adequately answer their questions about his environmental priorities and the Bush administration's environmental policies.

Republicans assailed Democrats for turning the confirmation process into a referendum on the administration's environmental record in an attempt to raise the profile of the issue for the presidential campaign. Although the committee's 10 Republicans outnumber its Democrats and Independents, committee rules require the presence of at least two minority party members before a vote is valid.

Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.), the ranking minority member on the committee, said the boycott had nothing to do with the quality of the nominee. Instead, he said, it represented an effort to use the minority's leverage during the confirmation process to pry information from the administration about how its policies were affecting Americans' health.

"We intend to use this leverage to get answers," Jeffords said. "The American public needs answers. The Bush administration is weakening the Clean Air Act, weakening the Clean Water Act and not cleaning up Superfund sites."

Jeffords was the one minority member who attended the meeting, but he left after explaining the decision to boycott. Jeffords and the eight committee Democrats sent a letter late Tuesday evening to committee Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), requesting that he delay the vote for two weeks.

At the meeting Wednesday morning, Inhofe announced that the vote would be rescheduled to Oct. 15. He also held a "mock" vote, and all 10 Republicans voted for Leavitt's nomination.

"As is obvious, the boycott today was inspired by partisan presidential politics," Inhofe said after the meeting. "It was an affront to the committee and insulting to a nominee who has widespread support from Republicans and Democrats alike."

Democrats saw the confirmation as an opportunity to air opposition to the Bush administration's efforts to ease regulatory requirements on industries, which they say have decreased environmental protections.

Three Democratic senators -- Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina -- have said they will use their senatorial privilege to postpone a Senate vote to confirm Leavitt until the administration gives them answers on a variety of issues.

Jeffords and the Democrats said they hoped that the two-week delay would give Leavitt time to respond to their questions more fully. In particular, Democrats criticized Leavitt for failing to list the top five environmental health risks faced by the American public and for not saying whether the EPA could ban the gasoline additive MTBE, which has polluted California drinking water.

The Democrats also demanded Leavitt's estimate of the health effects of the administration's decision to relax requirements that coal-fired power plants and other major polluters install pollution controls when they expand old plants or build new ones.

In each case, Leavitt deferred responding until after he was confirmed and could consult with EPA officials. In all, Leavitt was asked 400 written questions, the majority from Democrats.

White House spokeswoman Ashley Snee said that Leavitt had already met with 19 senators and answered nearly all the questions, and that he would answer no more. Many of his answers consisted of promises to address the questions fully once he became EPA administrator.

She said it was "unfortunate that these delay tactics are being used on such a highly qualified nominee."

Republicans on the committee defended the Bush administration's environmental record and Leavitt's responses to questions. Inhofe said Carol Browner, President Clinton's EPA administrator, similarly deferred responses to questions she was asked during her confirmation process.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), referring to a recent EPA report, said Democrats were misleading the public by suggesting that Bush was hurting the environment.

"The condition of our environment has improved since President Bush took office," he said.

Cornyn and others stressed that confirming Leavitt, 52, who has worked in a bipartisan fashion on national environmental problems, would provide the EPA with good leadership and benefit the environment.

"Political blackmail won't clean our rivers and streams; heated rhetoric won't improve air quality, and jockeying for position in a presidential primary at the expense of a nominee with such a proven record won't protect our children from future environmental threats," Cornyn said.

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