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The Nation

Leavitt Wins Approval as Head of EPA

The Senate's OK comes on an 88-8 vote. The Utah governor is known to prefer coaxing rather than forcing compliance to attain goals.

October 29, 2003|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, ending an effort by six senators to block the vote in protest of Bush administration environmental policies.

The 88-8 vote came after a polarized two-day debate over the president's environmental record, which some Republicans praised as the best and some Democrats denounced as the worst.

Leavitt, who has governed Utah for 11 years, has earned a reputation even among some environmentalists as someone who can gather people of divergent views to work toward common environmental goals. He shares President Bush's preference for coaxing businesses to become partners in achieving pollution reduction objectives, rather than forcing them to comply with strict regulations.

After the vote, Bush called Leavitt an "exceptional leader who shares my commitment to reaching out across partisan lines to get things done."

Leavitt, 52, may start work by the end of next week, said Acting EPA Administrator Marianne Horinko. He will replace Christie Whitman, who resigned in June.

The confirmation process, which stretched over 56 days, became a lightning rod for criticism of the administration's efforts to ease antipollution regulations. Democrats on the Environment and Public Works Committee boycotted a vote on the nomination, delaying the process by two weeks. Then six senators, three of them candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, attempted to block a vote on the Senate floor. But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) ended the delays by scheduling a vote for Monday to override that and Democrats agreed to allow Tuesday's confirmation vote.

The Democrats who backed Leavitt -- including Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California -- noted that they were not condoning Bush's environmental agenda.

"This vote should not be seen as an endorsement of Bush administration environmental policies, but a vote in support of a fine and honorable man who has an extremely difficult job ahead," said Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, an independent who votes with the Democrats.

During the debate over Leavitt, Jeffords, the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, had described the EPA's record under Bush as "abysmal."

Republicans, however, took the opportunity to defend the president's policies.

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, led the charge. When Democrats criticized Bush for allowing the bankruptcy of a fund that pays to clean Superfund sites, Inhofe countered that Bush supports funding the program through the general budget.

And when they criticized the administration for weakening enforcement against companies that break pollution laws, Inhofe said the president had asked Congress for more money to enforce environmental laws than any of his predecessors.

Bush "has the best [environmental] record of any president in history," Inhofe said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, one of the eight Democrats who voted against Leavitt, said Bush's record was "just the opposite."

"When you cut through, it is essentially special-interest legislation, rolling back the progress we've made," she said.

Boxer, a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said she voted against Leavitt because his responses to her questions during the hearing on his nomination left her with the impression that "Mike Leavitt will be a full team player for the Bush administration and not a team player for the health of the American people."

But Leavitt won praise, even from some Democrats, as a consensus-builder. His supporters cited his leadership of a group of 13 states, 13 Indian tribes, polluting industries and environmental organizations that coalesced around a plan to cut haze in the West.

But other Democrats took aim at Leavitt's record in Utah, saying that he failed to crack down on polluters.

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey said Leavitt had allowed one of the country's biggest polluters, Magnesium Corp. of America, to release 170 times the allowable amount of dioxins, one of the most dangerous toxins, for years.

"The EPA eventually had to step in where the state had failed to do so," Lautenberg said. "That strikes me as a serious lapse in enforcement responsibilities."

Three of the Democrats who had attempted to hold up Leavitt's nomination -- Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts -- were on the campaign trail and did not vote.

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