Democrats Target EPA Pick, May Find GOP Votes a Rare Commodity

By Dean Scott and Rachel Leven

Dec. 8 — Senate Democrats and their environmental group allies are shifting their campaign into high gear to derail President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency but face an uphill battle to get Republicans to defect to their side.

Democrats who fear backtracking on President Barack Obama’s climate agenda see a bruising battle on the floor to confirm Trump nominee Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R) who sued to block EPA climate rules and is skeptical that burning fossil fuels is driving up global temperatures. But even several of the Republicans likely to be targeted for voting against Pruitt signaled that it might be a long shot for them to defect.

Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and Brian Schatz (Hawaii) Dec. 8 said they will demand that any Senate Republicans who share their view that humans contribute to climate change vote against Pruitt.

“This is going to be a litmus test for anyone in the Senate that claims not to be a denier,” Schatz told reporters a day after Trump announced his intention to nominate Pruitt.

Of course, the 48 Senate Democrats, on paper at least, are only a few votes shy of denying Pruitt the 51 votes he needs for Senate confirmation. But they would have to thread the needle to do so.

Pruitt is for now heavily favored to clear the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee—where Republicans angered by Obama’s climate and regulatory agenda are concentrated. After that, it’s unclear how many of perhaps three or four Republicans whom Democrats might have in mind because of their at times climate-friendly views can actually be swayed.

Democrats acknowledge that they are in the position they are in largely because they fell well short of expectations that they would seize control of the Senate on Election Day. “In this election we had more than a stumble. We had a face plant,” Merkley told reporters.

A Small Pool of Defectors

To sink Pruitt, Democrats would have to win over Republicans viewed as moderates on energy and climate, from Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander to South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham.

They have at least at times backed climate funding or accept that the climate is changing. But in doing so they also can’t lose coal-state Democrats such as Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) or Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said Trump’s selection of his home state’s attorney general will naturally bring out opposition from environmental groups but that Democrats might be in for a surprise given potential defections to Pruitt’s side.

Inhofe, who has long been skeptical that humans are significantly impacting the climate, has been perhaps Pruitt’s biggest booster this week.

“It’s the best pick in the history of the United States Senate,” the outgoing Environment and Public Works Committee chairman told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 7.

Democrats may have to worry about their own defections to confirm Pruitt.

“I think we’re going to be picking off a lot of Democrats” when Pruitt comes to a floor vote, he said.

Little Republican Wavering, So Far

Some of the Republicans that might be targeted for defection declined to say whether they would consider Pruitt’s climate skepticism a deal breaker. Chief among them was Tennessee’s Alexander.

“My views on climate change are well-known and have been for a dozen years,” Alexander told reporters Dec. 8, before adding he had no comment on Pruitt’s record. “I do not because I haven’t seen the nomination yet, and I don’t know him,” he said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who has a mixed record on climate issues and may be even more of a long shot—she co-authored a cap-and-trade bill nearly a decade ago but voted against a similar bill in 2005—said she is reserving judgment on Pruitt.

But Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, appeared skeptical of just how quick Pruitt’s environmental opponents were to pan Trump’s selection.

“I know there were some pretty tough statements that came out” immediately, she told reporters Dec. 8, “and it causes me to wonder whether they really know him or whether they were just programmed to just not like somebody that has been tough on regulation.”

Asked if Pruitt’s climate science skepticism raises any red flags, Murkowski said it’s still early and she will do a thorough vetting of his record in the weeks to come. “I don’t know what his skepticism is so I can’t comment on that,” she said.

Graham: Science Won’t Decide Vote

Graham, the South Carolina Republican who along with former Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) led an ill-fated effort to craft a far-reaching climate bill in 2010, doubts that concerns about Pruitt’s climate beliefs will sink his nomination.

“I’m going to keep saying what I believe—that man-made CO2 emissions are creating the greenhouse gas effect, heating up the planet to a level of danger,” he said.

But, he said, “[T]hat’s not going to determine how I vote.”

The South Carolina Republican acknowledged “most Republicans are not where I’m at. That doesn’t mean that they’re not capable of serving the country.”

“There are a lot of Republicans who disagree with the science on climate change,” Graham said. “That doesn’t mean you can’t find common ground on clean air, clean water, job creation and energy independence.”

Alexander, Corker Say Its Too Early

Other Republicans who have gone on record or voted for resolutions linking human activity and rising temperatures, such as Tennessee’s Bob Corker, said nothing to suggest they might vote no on Pruitt.

Said Corker, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman: “I really don’t know anything about him. I had not even heard his name until this morning.”

Even Republicans who might clash with Pruitt on some select policies—say, farm state Republicans such as Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) who back federal standards for ethanol and other renewable fuel, something Pruitt has questioned—suggested they won’t only be looking at their home state issue.

Many Republicans Effusive

Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford (R) was, like Inhofe, effusive in his support. He suggested Democrats will fall short in targeting Pruitt and cast the Oklahoman’s dispute with the Obama agency as one that had more to do with state versus federal authority on environmental matters than the necessity for a clean environment.

“For him, coming at it as a state attorney general, he understands very well—there are a lot of environmental issues we need to address as a nation, but the EPA is not the one [agency] that needs to address all of those,” Lankford told reporters Dec. 7.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) put it more bluntly. “Elections have consequences,” Barrasso, who will succeed Inhofe in chairing the environment committee and its consideration of Pruitt’s nomination, told reporters Dec. 8. “Democrats are still in shock,” he said, but “we’re going to do everything we can to make sure President-Elect Trump’s nominees are confirmed.”

Carper Issues Shot Across Bow

Some Democrats also were unwilling to put on their battle armor so early. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who often works across the aisle and is in line to be the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works panel, took a slightly more conciliatory tone saying Dec. 7 he was “troubled by reports of the aggressive stance” Pruitt has taken in targeting EPA.

But, Carper said, any pick “charged with leading the EPA who wants to ignore science or look out for special interests at the expense of public health can expect a fight with me.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made it clear he views Pruitt’s opposition to Obama EPA rules as an asset, not a liability. “The EPA is the poster-child for agencies in need of immediate reform and Scott has the resume and energy to turn this bureaucracy around.”

Environmental groups cast the battle in some of the starkest terms of any nomination battle. Pruitt “is by far the worst EPA administrator” ever to be nominated,” League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski told reporters Dec. 8. He added Trump’s pick “is unfit for this job and should be rejected.”

Karpinski’s view that Pruitt is the “worst” EPA pick ever presumably includes Ann Gorsuch, President Ronald Reagan’s pick to head the agency in 1981. She resigned two years later for alleged mismanagement of the Superfund program after refusing to turn over related documents to Congress.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) who was a member of the House during the Gorsuch battle, told reporters the analogy is apt.

“I think we’re going to see something [rising] up from a public perspective that we have not seen since Ronald Reagan named” Gorsuch, who like Pruitt was to “bring the agency to its knees,” Markey said.

With assistance from Brian Dabbs and Rebecca Kern in Washington.

To contact the reporters on this story: Dean Scott in Washington, D.C. at; Rachel Leven in Washington, D.C. at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at

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