Senate confirms Leavitt as EPA chief

With just eight dissenting votes, the Senate on Tuesday easily approved President Bush's nomination of Gov. Michael Leavitt, R-Utah, to succeed Christine Todd Whitman as EPA administrator.

"The record is clear that Michael Leavitt is a champion of the environment," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

"He's very good at bringing people together," said Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., who was elected governor of his state in 1992 when Leavitt was first elected in Utah.

Even Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., dropped her opposition shortly before Tuesday's vote, saying the White House had finally responded to her questions about air pollution in New York City after the destruction of the World Trade Center and pledged to take additional steps over the next two years. Clinton and three presidential contenders-Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., John Kerry, D-Mass., and John Edwards, D-N.C.- blocked the vote for weeks to publicize their opposition to Bush environmental policies.

While Clinton voted to confirm Leavitt, Lieberman, Kerry and Edwards were all absent from the vote. Voting against Leavitt were Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Jon Corzine, D-N.J., Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., Mark Dayton, D-Minn., Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Jack Reed, D-R.I., John (Jay) Rockefeller, D-W.Va, and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Leavitt will have little time to get up to speed as head of the agency, as EPA this week announced new Clean Air Act utility emissions reforms which were promptly challenged in court by state and city officials. Leavitt also takes over a deeply troubled enforcement program that has become the focus of increased Democratic scrutiny in the House and Senate.

The new administrator also will be quickly plunged into the perennial budget battle, as federal agencies and the Office of Management and Budget are beginning negotiations over President Bush's fiscal 2005 budget request. Additionally, Leavitt can expect to be tested quickly by environmentalists and Democratic presidential candidates as the 2004 election heats up.

Although Leavitt was largely untouched personally during the political attacks that marred his confirmation, he will now become the front and center representative of the administration's environmental policies. As a result, he will likely bear the brunt of political attacks on Bush's climate change, clean air, hazardous waste cleanup and science policies, and will be tasked by the White House with defending the Bush record.