Panel Approves EPA Nominee Along Party Lines

Gina McCarthy, President Obama's nomination to head the EPA Gina McCarthy, President Obama's nomination to head the EPA Alex Brandon/AP

Senate Republicans on Thursday eased their opposition to the nomination of Gina McCarthy, President Obama’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency—but her confirmation by the full Senate is not yet assured.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved McCarthy’s nomination on a party-line vote, after committee Republicans last week boycotted appearing at the same vote. They were protesting that McCarthy had not provided satisfactory answers to the more than 1,000 questions submitted to her, and that she failed to satisfactorily answer a series of “transparency requests” about the workings of the environmental agency. Democrats have called the number of questions submitted to the nominee “unprecedented.”

But on Thursday morning, Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, the ranking Republican on the Environment Committee, sent a letter to McCarthy and EPA Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe, signaling that both sides may be backing down, as the president’s nominee continues to respond to questions and Republicans conclude their boycott.

“Thank you for the letter of yesterday committing to significant steps forward with regard to all five of the transparency requests of the Senate EPW Committee Republicans,” Vitter wrote to EPA.

“Because these steps forward are significant, we want to thank you and acknowledge progress, including by moving forward with the committee markup of Gina’s nomination,” Vitter wrote.

“Because these steps forward are limited and do not include everything required under the law, we want to request additional progress as outlined below. Should major additional progress be made in all of the five categories over the next two weeks, I will strongly support handling the McCarthy nomination on the Senate floor without a cloture vote or any 60-vote threshold. Should all of our requests in the five categories be granted, I will support the McCarthy nomination.”

But Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the committee’s chairwoman, slammed Vitter for the delay. “I’ve never seen a nomination handled like this. I’m stunned at this. It’s holding a nominee hostage.… I just can’t celebrate a partisan vote.”

McCarthy, who is currently the top EPA official charged with writing clean-air and climate-change regulations, is the latest in a string of Obama Cabinet nominees to face Republican pushback. EPA in particular has come under intense GOP attack—Obama has indicated that in his second term, the agency will be at the forefront of his controversial climate-change agenda, charged with rolling out major new regulations on the nation’s coal-fired power plants.

Even if McCarthy’s nomination makes it to the Senate floor, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., has placed a procedural hold on McCarthy’s nomination, saying he’ll block her confirmation until he receives an update on a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to repair a levee on the Mississippi River system.

Despite opposition by Republicans—and some Democrats—to the prospect of EPA climate-change regulations, many Republicans, and even top officials in coal and polluting industries, say they like McCarthy personally and have praised her for a pragmatic approach to crafting environmental regulations.

McCarthy has a bipartisan background, having served as a top environmental aide to Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts and played a key role in helping him develop a state climate-change plan. She also served as head of Connecticut’s environment department under Republican Gov. Jodi Rell.

Vitter and other Republicans signaled that their opposition has not been to McCarthy personally, or even about the expected climate-change regulations. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said, “It seems that we ought to be all smiles on the committee today. A path forward has been agreed to to move the nomination to the next step, and we should be celebrating that.” He added, “Our questions have focused on transparency only.”

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