President Bush's widely praised nomination of Stephen L. Johnson to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency hit a roadblock yesterday when a lone Democratic senator placed a hold on the career scientist's confirmation.
Johnson had received an enthusiastic welcome from environmentalists, industry advocates and both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill even as his confirmation faced some obstacles.
Yesterday's hold was placed by Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.), who has long demanded that the EPA conduct scientific reviews of two legislative plans introduced in recent years as alternatives to President Bush's signature air pollution proposal, the "Clear Skies" initiative. Carper said he would not lift the hold until the EPA gave him an "ironclad" guarantee it would evaluate the other plans.
"I believe Steve Johnson is a good human being," Carper said in a news briefing. "If he were confirmed, he would make a good administrator. He can be a better administrator if the administration would allow him to do his job unfettered."
Carper said the administration is leaning on the EPA not to perform the analyses because they would show the flaws in Bush's plan. He said he was reluctant to apply the hold, but said the evaluations are needed to get legislation passed. Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), supported Carper. "This is one way to get the administration's attention," he said.
Carper made the same requests when Johnson came before the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee on April 6. Johnson, the acting administrator of the agency, told Carper he did not think it made sense to expend EPA time and resources analyzing proposals that did not have bipartisan support.
"If there is not interest in moving the legislation forward on both sides of the aisle, I'm not sure that would be the best use of resources," he said.
Yesterday, the EPA referred calls to the White House, where spokeswoman Erin Healy reiterated support for Johnson. Michele St. Martin, communications director at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said "thousands of pages of complex analysis" had already been presented to Carper and others.
The "Clear Skies" bill stalled in the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works after Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.), Carper and other Democrats, and Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.) said it did not go far enough or fast enough in reducing pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury from power plants and other sources.
A competing bill introduced by Carper, Chafee and others, and a second bill by Jeffords, set more ambitious targets but would be costly and likely to face delays as a result of resistance from industry, said Scott Segal, a spokesman for the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, an industry group.
"The administration can't do a separate analysis on every bill that is introduced," he said. "Senator Carper is not asking for equal treatment; he is asking for special treatment."
Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) had vowed previously to block the nomination but withdrew their objections after Johnson agreed to cancel a controversial Florida study that sought to measure the effects of household use of pesticides on children.
In a separate development, environmentalists and industry advocates clashed over a provision that House Republicans added to energy legislation Wednesday. The provisions would allow municipalities whose smog levels exceeded federal standards to delay implementing controls until upwind polluters reined in pollution first.
Segal, the industry advocate, said that was simple fairness. But Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch said the measure would leave many Americans breathing unhealthful air. "If this became law," he said, "it would be the biggest weakening of the Clean Air Act in decades."