EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler will get his day on Capitol Hill next week, even if the agency he’s been tapped to permanently lead is still shut down.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing on Wheeler’s nomination to be the Environmental Protection Agency chief Jan. 16, the committee announced Jan. 9. The move drew criticism from Democrats, though they face long odds in spiking the nomination.
The move wasn’t a surprise: Trump had publicly signaled in November that he intended to tap Wheeler—who has been serving as the EPA’s acting chief since Scott Pruitt left in July 2018 amid a cloud of ethics questions—for the position.
Any confirmation hearing scheduled next week could occur as portions of the federal government, including the EPA, remain shut down. That leaves a much thinner staff available to prepare Wheeler for a hearing.
The EPA continued work for the first week of the shutdown using carryover funding, but had to furlough more than 13,000 of its employees after those funds ran out Dec. 28.
The EPA has already begun preparing Wheeler for any potential hearing, an administration source told Bloomberg Environment.
The agency’s press and congressional affairs teams aren’t furloughed, and congressional affairs is leading the preparations, the source added.
The prep team also can draw on the EPA’s assistant administrators and agency leadership, who are excepted from the shutdown, the source said.
The administration source doesn’t expect backlash for the EPA using resources on Wheeler’s confirmation process during the shutdown.
“There’s nothing out of the ordinary here, and in fact, the best thing we can do for all furloughed employees is to have a confirmed nominee, because it brings a measure of certainty to the institution,” the source said.
The shutdown also shouldn’t affect whether the Senate committee can hold a hearing, observers said.
“I don’t see why the Senate can’t continue its business, especially at the committee level, while the shutdown is going on,” Dimitri Karakitsos, a partner at Holland & Knight LLP and a former Environment and Public Works senior GOP staff member, told Bloomberg Environment.
Wheeler may not need as much preparation as a typical nominee might, Karakitsos added.
Prior to his role as deputy EPA administrator, Wheeler worked as an energy lobbyist and served for several years as a Republican aide on the Senate environment committee.
“We have somebody there who is a seasoned professional,” Karakitsos said. “He knows the issues, the agency, and the Hill. He just got confirmed not that long ago.”
Wheeler was confirmed as the EPA’s No. 2 last April by a 53-45 vote.
Republicans in the midterm elections increased their margin in the Senate to 53-47, as two of the three Democrats who supported Wheeler—Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.)—lost their re-election bids.
That leaves Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) as the lone Wheeler-backing Democrat left.
Democrats Want Commitments
Democrats on the Senate environment committee, though, are already criticizing Wheeler’s nomination.
Carper, the panel’s top Democrat, said he will be looking for concessions from Wheeler on several policy issues he raised in a July 2018 letter shortly after Wheeler was elevated to the acting position.
Without commitments from Wheeler on those issues—which include abandoning proposals to change the way the EPA uses science and to freeze federal fuel economy standards—Carper suggested Democrats could slow the confirmation process.
“These are the kinds of issues we want to make progress on, clean air, clean water, public health, and we’ve been very disappointed in the lack of progress, and we need to see some progress on those issues,” Carper told reporters Jan. 9. “And it’s not just me. He’s going to hear this from Democrats. He’s going to hear this from Republicans in the Senate, as well.”
“Wheeler might not be the cartoon villain that Scott Pruitt was as Administrator, but he’s no Captain Planet,” Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a Jan. 9 news release.
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