Republican senators on Thursday boycotted a scheduled committee vote on President Barack Obama’s pick to be the nation’s top air and water quality regulator, saying the Environmental Protection Agency hadn’t adequately answered questions about her role as a deputy there.
At least one Republican senator, Roy Blunt of Missouri, placed a hold on Gina McCarthy’s nomination to lead the EPA over questions about a levee project in his state. And the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, David Vitter of Louisiana, asked McCarthy a record-breaking 653 questions, out of 1,120 total from the full committee.
Those questions, in addition to queries from other Republicans, are considered to be the most ever asked of an administration nominee facing Senate confirmation. McCarthy’s predecessor, Lisa Jackson, faced only 157 questions from the same committee, Democrats said.
Vitter and the other seven Republicans on the committee chose not to attend the hearing: James Inhofe of Oklahoma, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Mike Crapo of Idaho, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, John Boozman of Arkansas and Deb Fischer of Nebraska.
McCarthy serves as the agency’s assistant administrator in charge of air and radiation. The Senate unanimously confirmed her for that job during the first Obama administration. Previously, she worked as a state environmental regulator for Obama’s 2012 opponent, Mitt Romney, the Republican former governor of Massachusetts. She also worked for a Republican governor in Connecticut.
The chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., on Thursday called the Republican move obstructionist. The vote has been held up for three weeks already to give Republicans time to get their questions answered, Boxer said. Republicans probably won’t like the answers, Boxer said, because the answers don’t support what she called a “pro-pollution fringe philosophy.” But that doesn’t mean Republican members should refuse to vote, Boxer said.
“Their opposition, even to allowing us to vote, shows how out of the mainstream they are,” Boxer said of the Republicans. “It shows how their pledge to do better with women voters is false.”
Vitter said in a letter to Boxer that the Republicans didn’t expect Democrats on the committee to agree with their decision. They noted that in 2003, Democratic members of the committee chose not to attend the scheduled vote on Michael Leavitt as President George W. Bush’s nominee to head the EPA until the agency responded “more fully to their requests.” Leavitt faced 305 questions during his confirmation.
Vitter said he remains concerned about the EPA’s transparency as well as the thoroughness of its responses to Republicans.
“While you have allowed EPA adequate time to fully respond before any mark-up on the nomination, EPA has stonewalled on four of the five categories,” he wrote.
The White House urged Senate Republicans to end the delays and said McCarthy had answered everything asked of her.
“It just demonstrates the predilection for obstructionism that is bad for the functioning of the federal government in important areas,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. “We call on Republicans in the Senate 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.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that Republicans were bypassing what he called a “fair and constructive confirmation process” in favor of “partisan, political games.” He noted similar delays on the president’s nominee for labor secretary, Thomas Perez.
“This type of blanket, partisan obstruction used to be unheard of,” Reid said Thursday on the floor of the Senate. “Now it has become an unacceptable pattern.”
McCarthy’s confirmation hearing in April exposed some of the deep partisan rifts over the direction of the EPA, an agency whose duties include monitoring air and water quality, and putting in place stricter rules for power plants that emit greenhouse gases.
Republican senators criticized McCarthy for her past role at a federal agency that has a heavy regulatory hand, including on the coal industry and climate change policy; Democrats argued that EPA air-quality rules save lives and create the conditions for a healthy environment and a strong economy.
CORRECTION: This version corrects the spelling of Deb Fischer (NOT Fisher) in fourth paragraph