The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Va. Senate panel snubs Trump EPA chief for Youngkin’s Cabinet

Former EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler was nominated by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin to be secretary of natural and historic resources. (Steve Helber/AP)

RICHMOND — A state Senate committee on Tuesday rejected former Trump administration official Andrew Wheeler for Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Cabinet — a rare snub that is not likely to end the Republican governor’s efforts to install Wheeler as secretary of natural and historic resources.

The General Assembly seldom rejects a governor’s Cabinet pick, but Democrats who control the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee said they could not support Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who led a rollback of Obama-era environmental regulations as Environmental Protection Agency chief under President Donald Trump.

The committee voted 9 to 6 to strike Wheeler’s name from a resolution listing 16 gubernatorial Cabinet picks, with every Democrat voting to remove it and every Republican opposed. There was no discussion of the remaining 15 choices, all of whom were approved.

Youngkin nominates Trump EPA chief Andrew Wheeler for secretary of natural resources

“Andrew Wheeler is a highly qualified individual with an extensive background on natural resources and issues critically important to Virginians,” Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said Tuesday. “The governor is disappointed that the committee put partisan politics over the selection of an experienced public servant who would prioritize cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and James River.”

The committee’s action is not expected to be the last word on Wheeler, who has spent recent weeks on a charm offensive in a divided Capitol. Republicans won control of the Executive Mansion and House of Delegates in the November elections, but Democrats hold a 21-to-19 majority in the Senate.

Wheeler’s name could be added back to the resolution through a floor amendment in a few days, when the legislation reaches the full Senate. He would only need support from one Democrat in that chamber to win confirmation, since Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears (R) has the power to break a 20-20 tie.

Failing that, Youngkin could give Wheeler an administration position that does not require General Assembly approval. That’s a route Republican governor Robert F. McDonnell took in 2010, when Democrats opposed businessman Robert Sledd for commerce and trade secretary. McDonnell dropped Sledd’s nomination and made Sledd an unpaid senior economic adviser.

In recent weeks, Wheeler has met one-on-one with Democratic legislators and touted his support for Chesapeake Bay cleanup and other environmental causes before House and Senate committees.

Virginia House Republicans try hardball to save Youngkin Cabinet pick

Republican House leaders, meanwhile, have tried to pressure Democrats by holding up the reappointment of a State Corporation Commission judge favored by Democrats. Republican leaders said this week that they will also hold up two state Supreme Court vacancies unless Wheeler is installed. The power to fill the SCC and Supreme Court slots will fall to Youngkin unless the General Assembly acts on them before the session adjourns.

Democrats and environmentalists expressed outrage when Youngkin (R) nominated Wheeler for his Cabinet, and initially all 21 Democrats in the narrowly divided Senate vowed to oppose him.

The General Assembly hasn’t defeated a Cabinet appointee since 2006, when Republicans in the House of Delegates rejected former AFL-CIO chief Daniel G. LeBlanc for secretary of the commonwealth under then-Gov. Tim Kaine (D).

Wheeler’s chances seemed to improve after he portrayed himself in committee hearings as an Eagle Scout who believes in climate change, science and the concept of environmental justice.

From 2018: Wheeler has long lobbying history on issues before the EPA

Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey (D-Richmond), a member of the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee, emerged from last week’s hearing saying he was at least open to supporting Wheeler. Morrissey, who has broken from his party at times, declined to comment this week. He does not serve on the panel that rejected Wheeler on Tuesday.

Democrats on the Privileges and Elections Committee initially intended to remove Wheeler from the resolution without debate or even identifying him by name — the approach legislators typically take to spare a nominee who’s about to be rejected any additional embarrassment. Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) made a motion to strike lines 42 and 43 from the resolution, the two lines related to Wheeler’s nomination.

Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) broke in, saying he objected to “just pulling off a Cabinet secretary with no articulation of why you’re pulling them off and moving forward to try to jam that through.”

Deeds replied that Democrats lack confidence that Wheeler would work for “the preservation and conservation of our natural and historic resources.”

“We received a letter from 150 former EPA employees who suggested that Mr. Wheeler had undermined the work of EPA and worked against the environmental interests of this country,” Deeds said. “We think that members of the governor’s Cabinet ought to be people that unite us Virginians.”