Republicans Boycott Senate Panel Vote On McCarthy Nomination to Lead EPA

By Jessica Coomes and Anthony Adragna  

Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee escalated their objections to the nomination of Gina McCarthy to be Environmental Protection Agency administrator May 9, boycotting a committee vote on her nomination.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the committee chairwoman, delayed the vote after Republicans refused to participate. Boxer said she will reschedule the vote when the committee can assemble a quorum of members, which will depend on the ability of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who has been ill, to attend.

Several EPA observers told BNA May 9 they do not think the Republican boycott will jeopardize McCarthy’s confirmation. White House spokesman Jay Carney also said the Obama administration is confident McCarthy will be confirmed.

'Stop Gumming Up the Works.'

Carney told reporters that Republicans have demonstrated a “predilection for obstructionism that is bad for the functioning of the federal government in important areas.” He called on Senate Republicans “to stop gumming up the works when it comes to the confirmation process of nominees who are enormously qualified for the jobs that the president has asked them to fill and to get about the business of confirming them.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also criticized the Republicans’ boycott in remarks on the Senate floor May 9, and he said he will ensure that McCarthy “will have her day in the Senate.”

“This type of blanket, partisan obstruction used to be unheard of,” Reid said. “Now it has become an unacceptable pattern. Republicans will use any procedural roadblock or stall tactic available to deny the president qualified nominees.”

Republicans Push for Transparency

Republicans on the Senate committee have expressed frustrations with McCarthy’s responses to their questions about transparency in the agency.

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), the committee’s ranking member, has pressed EPA for answers on whether McCarthy has used private email addresses to conduct official business, on the release of technical data for scientific air pollution studies, on conducting cost-benefit analyses for rules, and on tracking petitions for rulemaking, notices of intent to sue, and settlement negotiations (44 ER 1252, 4/26/13).

After McCarthy’s confirmation hearing April 11, Vitter submitted additional written questions to McCarthy, and he released her answers May 6 in a 123-page document (see related story).

In her answers, she provided Senate Republicans with few specific commitments for the agency’s regulatory agenda over the next few years, but she defended the work she has done since 2009 as the agency’s assistant administrator for air and radiation.

Vitter told reporters at a press conference May 9 that the length of the delay for the committee vote would be “completely up to EPA.” EPA did not respond to a request for comment May 9 on whether McCarthy will draft additional answers to the Republicans’ questions. McCarthy did not attend the May 9 Senate committee meeting.

Opposition to EPA Policies, Not McCarthy

Vitter said the Republicans' opposition to the nomination is less about McCarthy and largely about EPA’s broader transparency and openness policies. He said McCarthy has been a top official at an agency that “has that dismal record on openness and transparency. I don’t really care about a chummy personal relationship if we’re constantly getting stonewalled on basic openness and transparency requests.”

As EPA air chief since 2009, McCarthy has overseen some of the agency’s most significant air pollution regulations, including mercury and air toxics standards for power plants and a proposed rule to establish greenhouse gas emissions limits for new power plants.

President Obama announced McCarthy’s nomination March 4 following the departure of former administrator Lisa Jackson.

Bob Perciasepe, who was the agency’s deputy administrator during Obama’s first term, has been the acting administrator since Jackson’s departure.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a committee member, told reporters at a press conference May 9 that EPA has satisfactory leadership under Perciasepe.

“The acting administrator of the EPA, Bob Perciasepe, is more than capable of managing the agency until a nominee is confirmed,” Barrasso said. “He knows what he’s doing there, and I think we should be absolutely willing to wait on a confirmation of Gina McCarthy.”

Boxer Urged to Reschedule Voted

Vitter and the other seven Republican committee members sent a letter to Boxer on May 9, shortly before the vote was scheduled to begin, asking her to reschedule.

Boxer said the Republicans’ absence was disrespectful to McCarthy, who submitted answers to 1,000 questions from Republicans. The problem, Boxer said, is that McCarthy’s answers do not reflect a “pro-polluter, fringe philosophy.”

“They’ve gotten the answers to the questions, folks,” Boxer said. “They don’t like the answers.”

The Environment and Public Works Committee’s rules say that at business meetings, one-third of the committee members, at least two of whom are minority members, constitute a quorum to take action. There is an exception, however, that says no matter may be reported to the Senate unless a majority of committee members votes in person.

The committee has 18 members, which means 10 members could vote to advance the nomination.

Although the committee has 10 Democrats, only eight attended the May 9 meeting. Lautenberg has been absent from the Senate in recent weeks due to illness. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) also did not attend.

Baucus’s office told BNA the senator had another meeting at the same time as the committee meeting, but he was prepared to leave if his presence was needed for a vote.

Boxer said it was not her intent for the committee to vote on McCarthy’s nomination with only Democrats, but that is likely what will happen. She said she will reschedule the vote when all 10 Democrats can attend, although Lautenberg’s presence depends on his health.

“We will attempt to get everyone here,” Boxer said.

Boxer Defends McCarthy

During the meeting, Boxer also defended McCarthy, calling her “one of the most qualified, perhaps the most qualified, nominee to ever head the Environmental Protection Agency.”

“By the time this is over, I hope the Republicans will recognize this is one of the best nominees either party could ever find to head the EPA,” Boxer said, adding “every nominee is entitled to a vote, particularly a nominee like this one.”

Several EPA observers told BNA May 9 that they expect McCarthy to be confirmed, despite the Republicans’ boycott of the committee vote.

Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, told BNA in a statement that it is disappointing McCarthy’s nomination has become political.

“Gina McCarthy deserves a vote before the full Senate as soon as possible so she can begin carrying out the important business of EPA Administrator,” Becker said. “Her nomination is in no danger.”

John Walke, clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, also expressed confidence that McCarthy will be confirmed, calling the boycott “a tempest in a Tea Party pot.”

“I don’t believe this will fundamentally change a minority committee-EPA dynamic that was already established with Senator Vitter’s combative letters to EPA and the unprecedented carpet-bombing with 1,079 Republican questions to Gina McCarthy,” Walke said. “Those tactics had already set an obstructionist tone from the minority.”

Martin Hayden, Earthjustice’s vice president for policy and legislation, in a statement to BNA, called the Republicans’ actions “a tantrum that will pass.”

Other Obstacles on Horizon

Separately, Sens. John Boozman (R-Ark.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who both sit on the committee, told reporters May 8 they will consider filibustering McCarthy’s nomination when it comes to the Senate floor because of her responses to the Republicans’ questions.

Meanwhile, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told reporters May 8 the hold he placed on McCarthy’s nomination remains in place.

Blunt announced the hold in March, and he said it would remain in effect until the Obama administration provides a schedule for the release of a draft environmental impact statement for the St. Johns Bayou and New Madrid Floodway Project, which would close a 1,500-foot gap in the Mississippi River levee system (see related story).

He said EPA has not contacted him about the project.