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By Dean Scott
Sen. Susan Collins was the lone Republican to vote no on EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s nomination. But 16 months later, following multiple revelations about Pruitt’s conduct, the Maine Republican isn’t ready to demand the agency chief’s resignation.
“It’s not my call as to whether or not he stays in his post—that’s the president’s call,” Collins told Bloomberg Environment in a recent interview.
Her stance illustrates the political quandary confronting Pruitt’s Democratic critics. If they can’t get the lone Republican who voted against Pruitt’s confirmation to demand his firing, then how are they to convince Republicans who backed the Environmental Protection Agency head to abandon him now?
Other Republican senators who have been sharply critical of Pruitt agree with Collins’ assertion that it’s up to President Donald Trump to decide Pruitt’s fate. As a result, not even further congressional hearings—such as one coming up in August, which the chairman of the Senate’s environment committee foreshadowed recently following new ethics revelations about Pruitt—will make much of a difference in persuading Republicans to join Democrats calling for the EPA head’s ouster, the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat predicts.
“I don’t know if there’s an ethical tripwire when it comes to Scott Pruitt, because he has served the purpose of some Republicans to emasculate environmental protection, and as a result, they are willing to look the other way when he has been guilty of repeated ethical violations,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told Bloomberg Environment.
Republicans have grown increasingly uncomfortable defending Pruitt’s conduct, ranging from his around-the clock security detail to his $50 a night bedroom rental in a Capitol Hill condominium from a lobbyist. Other actions that have raised eyebrows: allegations that Pruitt sought first-class upgrades at taxpayer’s expense, used his public position to prod Chick-fil-A Inc. to award a franchise to his wife, Marlyn Pruitt, and sent out top EPA aides for personal errands.
For now, Pruitt’s position appears safe. Trump said June 15 that Pruitt is doing “a fantastic job” but added, “I’m not happy about certain things. I’ll be honest.”
In April, more than 130 House Democrats joined 38 Senate Democrats, as well as Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), offering a resolution expressing no confidence in Pruitt and calling for his immediate resignation.
The depth of Pruitt critics’ frustration was on display July 2, when a woman confronted the EPA chief in a Washington, D.C., restaurant. Pruitt got up and left the restaurant.
But only a handful of House Republicans—several of them members of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, which tends to attract more moderate Republicans—have called on Pruitt to call it quits. They include Florida Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-lehtinen; New York Rep. Elise Stefanik; New Jersey Rep. Frank LoBiondo; and most recently, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania. Both LoBiondo and Ros-Lehtinen are retiring.
“Ironically, because [Pruitt] has been so reckless and has no credibility left in Congress, he has strengthened those who want to see our country take a different course,” Curbelo told Bloomberg Environment. “So we’re taking advantage of that, and I certainly hope he leaves the administration one way or the other as soon as possible. In the meantime, we’re going to continue taking advantage of his incompetence, pettiness, and recklessness to advance our cause.”
Fitzpatrick at a June 25 news conference in Horsham, Pa., said that Pruitt should step down because “there’s way too much stuff now” under investigation, referring to separate inquiries the Government Accountability Office, EPA inspector general, House Oversight Committee, and others are conducting.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) has called Pruitt “about as swampy as you get here in Washington, D.C.” Ernst and her Iowa GOP colleague, Sen. Chuck Grassley, have criticized him on biofuels policy, with Grassley warning he would call for Pruitt’s resignation if the EPA continued exempting small oil refineries from a mandate to use renewable fuels such as ethanol.
Pruitt subsequently made moves to do what Grassley and Ernst wanted, but that in turn angered oil-state senators.
Asked if Pruitt’s conduct warrants his early departure, Ernst said, “I do. I believe so.” But she told Bloomberg Environment, “If the president decides to let him go, I am totally OK with that. But it is up to the president to make that decision.”
Sens. John Kennedy (R-La.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) also haven’t hesitated to criticize Pruitt. But Kennedy, who has warned that Pruitt’s behavior hurts Trump, agreed the call is still the president’s.
Capito has repeatedly called for more congressional oversight over Pruitt, saying he needs to “clear the debris” she said is piling up around his conduct. But she also stopped short of calling on Trump to fire him.
“The president is going to make the decision on whether or not he goes or not,” Capito said.
Pruitt has made only a handful of appearances before congressional committees. But Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, recently bowed to pressure from members to bring Pruitt before a hearing in August.
Barrasso told Bloomberg Environment that he is eyeing mid- to late-August for the hearing, after senators return from a scheduled work period the week of Aug. 6.
Many Republicans, such as the chairman of the House Rules Committee, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), say Pruitt has been slow to adapt to national media attention and struggled along a learning curve that can be a challenge for new Cabinet members and others new to Washington.
“Scott Pruitt is learning that Washington, D.C., is a very expensive and difficult town to make your way in and around,” Sessions told Bloomberg Environment.
Other Republican senators remain firmly in Pruitt’s camp. They include Sen. Jim Inhofe (Okla.), who raised concerns over Pruitt’s actions in recent weeks but came to the fellow Oklahoman’s defense after meeting with him this month.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said he’s been impressed with Pruitt’s attention to the Anaconda Co. Smelter site in Montana, which Daines said is finally seeing progress under Pruitt’s campaign for more progress on Superfund cleanups.
Daines said he sees no reason for Pruitt to consider resigning.
“Part of this too is you’ve got a group of folks, extremists, who are chasing him relentlessly because they just don’t like what he’s doing at EPA,” Daines said.
—With assistance from Stephen Lee.
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