Alex Brandon/AP

EPA Nominee’s Hearing Is Just the Opening Act for GOP

Gina McCarthy, a tough-talking South Boston environmental regulator, expects grilling from Republicans.

The Obama administration and Senate Republicans face off in a high-drama clash over global warming on Thursday, as the president’s choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency undergoes questioning by the committee considering her nomination.

Gina McCarthy, a tough-talking environmental regulator from South Boston who is currently EPA’s top clean-air official, expects a grilling from Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, including a trio of conservatives from oil and coal states who have made no secret of their animosity toward President Obama’s environmental agenda.

McCarthy’s confirmation hearing sets the stage for a drama that will play out over the course of Obama’s second term. The president has made clear he wants action on global warming to be a cornerstone of his legacy, but it is a goal the fossil-fuel industry views as a threat to its very existence.

In his February State of the Union speech, Obama said that if Congress won’t pass climate-change legislation—a virtual certainty given the partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill—then his administration will do as much as it can using its existing authority. One likely course of action will be to have EPA mandate cuts in air pollution from coal-fired power plants and oil refineries.

That would make McCarthy the regulator most responsible for developing and implementing new climate-change rules—and put her in the crosshairs of the industries that would have to comply.

McCarthy’s hearing will also represent a return to the spotlight for Sen. David Vitter, R-La., the Environment and Public Works Committee’s new ranking member. Vitter has kept a relatively low profile since 2007, when it was revealed that his phone number had appeared on the call list of “D.C. Madam” Deborah Jeane Palfrey. But in his new position on the panel, Vitter will be the tip of the Republican spear trying to puncture one of the president’s top priorities.

Since the beginning of the year, Vitter has signaled his intent to come out against McCarthy with guns blazing. He has sent out a slew of letters and press releases slamming her and EPA, including a release Friday describing the agency’s “regulatory onslaught” and “garbage can of regulations and failures.”

Backing up Vitter will be the panel’s second-ranking Republican, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who has famously called global warming a “hoax.”

Also pressing McCarthy will be GOP Sen. John Barrasso, who represents Wyoming, the top coal-producing state.

“I think ... the EPA during the Obama administration has been failing ... American taxpayers and American workers,” Barrasso told National Journal Daily. He added, “The president is going to use presidential powers when he can’t get his radical environmental agenda passed legislatively, [and I’m going] to use every effort to block ... administrative efforts to go around the legislative process.”

People close to McCarthy, who is experienced at appearing before Congress, say they expect her to hold her ground in the face of the onslaught.

“She is very grounded and seasoned; she knows what’s coming,” said Carol Browner, the EPA administrator during the Clinton administration who also was Obama’s senior adviser on energy and climate during his first term.

But even with a contentious hearing, senior Republican aides say McCarthy will probably win a narrow Senate confirmation. The meatier action will play out in the coming years, if her agency does roll out climate regulations. It’s expected that Senate Republicans will then use the Congressional Review Act – a law which allows Congress to block Cabinet regulations – to fight the rules. 

“The real bite at the apple will be the [Congressional Review Act],” said Browner. “All of this is a preview. This is just the opening act.”

This article appeared in the Thursday, April 11, 2013 edition of National Journal Daily.