White House seen as eager to avoid controversy at EPA

K Street lobbyists and congressional aides predict that the White House, hoping to avoid election-year blowups on the environment, will likely put moderates in a number of key Environmental Protection Agency political positions, including the agency's general counsel, deputy administrator and enforcement chief.

Lobbyists close to the administration argue that such a strategy would likely help the White House avoid at least some of the political attacks that environmentalists and Democrats are expected to level against President Bush this year.

For instance, the Bush administration has already nominated Stephen Johnson to become the new deputy administrator at EPA, the agency's No. 2 position. Johnson headed up the agency's pesticides program in the Clinton and current Bush administrations. While Johnson has had conflicts with industry and environmentalists in the past, most sources familiar with him said he was generally not a controversial figure and had a solid reputation inside the agency and with stakeholders.

Sources close to the administration also said that the White House was considering naming Tom Gibson as the acting assistant administrator for enforcement. Gibson, who currently is EPA's assistant administrator for policy, worked for former Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairmen Bob Smith, R-N.H., and John Chafee, R-R.I., both of whom had moderate environmental records. According to one lobbyist, Gibson is considered a particularly strong "caretaker" for the enforcement position, which will become open at the end of the month when J. P. Suarez steps down.

The enforcement office at EPA has been mired in controversy for the last several years, and environmentalists and Democrats have continually attacked the administration's record. According to the lobbyist, the administration believes placing Gibson in the enforcement slot would help keep a low political profile on the issue during the election campaign and would allow it to avoid the political fight that would certainly come if it nominated a formal replacement for Suarez.

Industry lobbyists and Senate aides also said that Interior Department General Counsel Anne Klee, a former Smith aide, was also being considered for a position at EPA, possibly as the agency's general counsel. Although Klee has had run-ins with environmentalists over several issues in the past, she nevertheless has a reputation as a moderate and would likely not be a lightning rod for political attacks from congressional Democrats and environmental groups.

EPA nominations have been a recurring problem for the Bush administration. In 2001, for instance, environmentalists and Senate Democrats defeated the White House's choice of Donald Schregardus to head the agency's enforcement office. Democrats also delayed EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt's confirmation because of complaints that the White House was withholding key information on Clean Air Act revisions being undertaken by the agency.