GOP Forces Gridlock Over Obama’s Nominees for EPA, Labor

Gina McCarthy is Obama's nominee to head EPA. Gina McCarthy is Obama's nominee to head EPA. Alex Brandon/AP

Senate Republicans are forcing partisan debates about the role of the executive branch and its commitment to transparency by blocking the confirmation of two of President Obama’s nominees to top positions within his administration.

There doesn’t yet seem to be any clear resolution to the stalemate, which is holding up the confirmations of Gina McCarthy as Environmental Protection Agency administrator and Thomas Perez as Labor secretary.

The Senate ritual of confirming the president’s Cabinet nominees every four years provides the minority party in the Senate a rare chance to influence how the upper chamber and the administration operate. The Republicans, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are seizing that opportunity.

Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee boycotted their panel’s confirmation vote Thursday that Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., had scheduled despite objections from ranking member David Vitter, R-La.

His chief concern is not the agency’s regulations controlling greenhouse-gas emissions that cause climate change or even McCarthy herself. He and other Republicans on the panel say that EPA is not being responsive enough to their questions and concerns about the agency’s commitment to transparency, including using official e-mail accounts and not providing comprehensive data about pending regulations.

“It should come as no surprise that the Obama administration continues to stonewall reasonable information requests from Republicans,” McConnell said in a statement to National Journal Daily.

EPA spokesmen and Democrats on the environment panel defend the agency. “I’m going to put this into the record the answer to the thousands of questions,” Boxer said at McCarthy’s would-be confirmation vote Thursday morning where the Republican side of the dais was left empty. “It’s small print, both sides,” added Boxer, waving the stack of documents in the air.

The White House slammed Republicans’ boycott of McCarthy’s confirmation.

“It is unfortunate that some Republicans have chosen to play politics with this nomination,” a White House official said. “Gina McCarthy has decades of experience implementing sensible and achievable standards which protect the air we breathe and save lives, all while supporting a strong economy.”

Democrats are also rebutting Vitter’s charge that McCarthy hasn’t been responsive enough to his requests. According to numbers compiled by a Democratic official, McCarthy has responded to 1,120 questions for the record, compared to 157 questions Lisa Jackson, Obama’s first EPA administrator answered, and 230 questions that Stephen Johnson, George W. Bush’s administrator nominee, responded to.

Democrats signaled they will go to great lengths, including seeking to change Senate rules, to bypass Republicans’ obstructions.

“We will look at all our parliamentary options, including changing the rules of this committee,” Boxer said. “I don’t know if we can do it just with the majority.”

The committee’s rules state that for the panel to take action at a business meeting, at least a third of the committee must be present, and of that third, at least two members must be from the minority party. As with most rules, there’s an exception: The committee can take action if a majority of the total committee is present, which seems to imply that if every Democratic member shows up, Boxer could bypass Republicans altogether to approve McCarthy’s nomination to EPA.

That task would require the 89-year-old Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey to show up. Lautenberg, who is in a wheelchair, hadn’t cast a vote since Feb. 28, but he made a special trip to the Capitol to vote in support of gun-reform legislation last month, according to a report by NJ.com.

“It depends on the health of Senator Lautenberg,” Boxer said. “So we have some work to do on that.”

A spokesperson for Lautenberg, Caley Gray, said that if Boxer seeks to move McCarthy's confirmation along party lines, Lautenberg would make sure to show up.

If and when McCarthy makes it through the Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., placed a hold on confirmation to the full Senate all the way back in March.

Republicans’ beef with Perez, Obama’s pick for Labor secretary and currently assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, stems from the nominee's “ideological” background, according to McConnell.

“His willingness, time and again, to bend or ignore the law and to misstate the facts in order to advance his far-left ideology lead me and others to conclude that he’d continue to do so if he were confirmed to another, and much more consequential, position of public trust,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Republicans on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee delayed a confirmation vote of Perez in that committee Wednesday. It’s now set for May 16, according to the Associated Press.

“Republicans will use any procedural roadblock or stall tactic available to deny the president qualified nominees,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on the floor Thursday. “But my Republican colleagues can try every trick in the book. I assure you, Mr. Perez will have his day in the Senate. I assure you, Ms. McCarthy will have her day in the Senate. And I will do all that I can to ensure these highly qualified nominees are confirmed.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., continues his hold of Ernest Moniz to be Obama’s Energy secretary not because of the nominee himself but because of cuts to a nuclear-waste facility in his state. His office confirmed Thursday that nothing has changed on that front. 

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