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Virginia House Republicans try hardball to save Youngkin Cabinet pick

Andrew Wheeler testifies before a Senate committee in Richmond on Jan. 25. (Steve Helber/AP)
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RICHMOND — House Republicans trying to muscle former Trump administration official Andrew Wheeler into Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Cabinet are holding up the reappointment of a State Corporation Commission judge favored by Democrats, hoping the hardball tactic will make Senate Democrats drop their resistance to the nominee.

House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore (R-Scott) said Thursday that his caucus has “decided not to move forward” with the reappointment of Angela L. Navarro as an SCC judge because Senate Democrats have opposed Wheeler for secretary of natural and historic resources.

“The Senate’s playing games with Governor Youngkin’s appointments … and we’re just letting them know that we’re pushing back,” Kilgore said.

The General Assembly first elected Navarro to fill the unexpired term of a retiring SCC judge last year, when the House and Senate were both under Democratic control. Democrats, who still lead the Senate but lost the House in November’s elections, hoped to reappoint her to a full, six-year term this year.

Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said Republicans’ tactic will do nothing to make Democrats more favorably inclined toward Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who led a rollback of Obama-era environmental regulations as Environmental Protection Agency chief under President Donald Trump.

“They’re holding up somebody who there’s nothing but positive comments about and we’re holding up somebody who’s got a record that half the country was opposed to,” Saslaw said, adding that Navarro’s reappointment had supporters that included environmentalists, utilities and business groups. “That’s the difference. … We’re not going to operate that way.”

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Democrats and environmentalists expressed outrage this month when Youngkin (R) nominated Wheeler for his Cabinet, and initially all 21 Democrats in the narrowly divided Senate vowed to oppose him. But his chances seemed to improve earlier this week when Wheeler, appearing before a Senate committee, portrayed himself as an Eagle Scout who cares about the health of the Chesapeake Bay and believes in climate change, science and the concept of environmental justice. He said his record, which included cleaning up Superfund sites, had been distorted by media outlets opposed to Trump.

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Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey (D-Richmond), a member of the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee, emerged from Tuesday’s hearing saying he was at least open to supporting Wheeler.

Wheeler would only need support from one Democrat in the Senate to win confirmation since that would lead to a 20-to-20 tie vote, which Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears (R) would have the power to break.

Morrissey said Thursday night that he had no update on his thoughts about Wheeler, but he opposed linking his appointment to that of Navarro.

“I don’t believe that they should hold up the SCC reappointment,” he said. “I believe everybody should be given an up-or-down vote based on their qualifications.”

Navarro’s term expires Monday. The General Assembly could reelect her any time until the current session concludes.

If the seat remains empty after the legislature adjourns, Youngkin would have the power to make a recess appointment to the three-person commission, a state agency with regulatory authority over many business and economic interests, including public utilities, insurance and state-chartered banks.

“I like to call it the most powerful branch of state government that nobody’s ever heard of,” Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) said. He said the SCC position is far more powerful than a Cabinet post, so he thought the GOP’s attempt to link the two did not make sense.

“It’s like trading Max Scherzer for a Double-A player,” Surovell said, referring to the former Washington Nationals pitcher who now plays for the New York Mets. “They’re not equivalent.”

Before she was appointed to the SCC, Navarro was deputy secretary of commerce and trade under then-governor Ralph Northam (D). She previously served as deputy secretary of natural resources under Northam and his predecessor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe.