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Senate Committee Backs Leavitt as Head of EPA

Democrats end boycott, but they seek to delay confirmation over environmental issues.

October 16, 2003|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A Senate committee on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt's nomination as head of the Environmental Protection Agency after Democrats on the panel ended a boycott of the vote.

Although most Democrats joined all the Republican members on the Environment and Public Works Committee in the 16-2 vote, President Bush's pick to run the agency is not likely to take the job soon.

At least six Democratic lawmakers say they will use their senatorial privilege to postpone a full Senate vote on Leavitt's confirmation until they receive answers or reassurances in response to questions about Bush administration environmental policies.

Although there does not appear to be much opposition to Leavitt himself, his nomination has become a lightning rod for Democrats' criticism of the administration's environmental record.

"We are not even treading water, we are moving backward," Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said after voting for Leavitt's nomination.

Committee Democrats and Independent Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont had delayed the vote for two weeks by boycotting a previously scheduled vote, demanding more detailed responses to their questions.

Among other things, the lawmakers are seeking information about the health impacts of the Bush administration's policy to ease the "new source review" provision of the Clean Air Act, which determines when major polluting facilities have to install modern air pollution controls.

Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), who voted against the Leavitt nomination and said they would hold up his confirmation by the full Senate, were seeking information about the White House role in editing news releases from the EPA about the health risks to New Yorkers from air pollution caused by the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) on Wednesday joined the list of senators placing "holds" on Leavitt's nomination. The only member of the committee who refrained from voting, she said she found Leavitt's replies to her questions "nonresponsive and evasive."

But Republicans accused Democrats of playing partisan and presidential politics with Leavitt's nomination and said the environment is suffering as a result.

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the committee, criticized Democrats for unwarranted "Leavitt bashing."

"We must not allow presidential politics or partisan bickering to sacrifice a nominee with a proven record of environmental accomplishments," Inhofe said.

Three presidential candidates -- Lieberman and Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.) are among those vowing to hold up Leavitt's nomination.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said that Leavitt would be an exceptional EPA administrator and that preventing him from taking the job is hurting the environment.

"Gov. Leavitt and the able men and women at the EPA that he will soon lead deserve better than this political blackmail," Cornyn said. "I can only hope that these actions are not indicative of the treatment the EPA will receive in the coming years."

Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who is not a member of the committee, was the one senator who said he would stall Leavitt's nomination because of the governor's record in Utah.

"Gov. Leavitt has repeatedly refused to enforce our nation's environmental laws, damaging Utah's environment so corporate polluters can make millions," Lautenberg said.

As an example, Lautenberg cited a recent EPA report that ranked Utah as tied for last in enforcement of the Clean Water Act.

"The president has clearly chosen someone just like himself, one who believes environmental laws can be ignored with impunity by industries that pollute and poison the environment," Lautenberg said.

Jeffords and the Democrats who voted for Leavitt said they hoped he would be able to do a better job than his predecessor, Christie Whitman, at preventing the White House from directing EPA policy.

"Her hands were tied in many instances because of the secretive and heavy-handed decisions from the White House, not decisions based on the best environmental information or outcome," Jeffords said.

An environmental group released a memo Wednesday that Whitman had sent to Vice President Dick Cheney on May 4, 2001, warning him against making the changes to the new source review program of the Clean Air Act or undercutting the ongoing legal cases against coal-fired power plants that violated the program.

"The environmental community, some states and the public will read that as an attack on the enforcement cases," Whitman said in the memo. "We will pay a terrible political price if we undercut or walk away from the enforcement cases; it will be hard to refute the charge that we are deciding not to enforce the Clean Air Act."

In August, after Whitman left the agency, the administration announced that it was making the changes she had warned against.

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