Even as Republican senators pushed President Trump’s treasury and health and human services nominees through committees Wednesday despite Democratic-blocking tactics, Democrats failed to show up for a planned vote on Environmental Protection Agency nominee Scott Pruitt, the attorney general of Oklahoma.
“I have been informed that no Democrats will be in attendance,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wy.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. “It is a disappointing turn of events.”
While Democrats stayed away from the hearing room, their staff distributed an amendment from ranking member Tom Carper (D-Del.) that would add new standards requiring nominees to submit more financial information. Republicans, meanwhile, took turns describing how unreasonable they felt the Democrats had been in asking more than 1,000 follow-up questions after Pruitt’s Jan. 18 hearing.
“Scott Pruitt has answered more questions than any nominee in the last three presidential administrations,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the committee’s former chair. “It’s time we move on.”
“I got exhausted just listening to the questions,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V). “Disagreement with a nominee’s position is not a reason to boycott a hearing.”
Each Republican member of the committee made a statement, throwing Democrats’ previous comments about obstruction back at them, though no Democrat was present to hear.
“I ask my Democratic colleagues: Will they take the blame for an EPA that is not fully informational?” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). “God forbid we have an environmental crisis.”
As one after another lawmaker spoke, a GOP aide displayed a chart designed to show how quickly past EPA nominees had been confirmed. Notably missing from it, however, was President Barack Obama’s second EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy. Nominated in March 2013, she was not confirmed until July of that year — and at one point, committee Republicans boycotted a meeting to demand that McCarthy answer more questions.
After 50 minutes of Republican speeches, Barrasso said he would not force a vote on Pruitt without Democrats in attendance — as the Senate Finance Committee had done earlier in the morning on those two other nominees.
“I pledge to move the nomination of Scott Pruitt as expeditiously as possible,” Barasso said. In a scrum with reporters after the committee was recessed, he explained that the 2013 boycott of McCarthy’s nomination was different than Democrats’ action Wednesday because Obama was then in his second term.
“That was not a new president, newly elected,” Barrasso said. “A newly elected president, I believe, has a right to their own cabinet.”
Several environmental groups quickly applauded the Democrats’ tactics. “The resistance strikes back,” said May Boeve, executive director of the climate change advocacy organization 350.org.
While it’s hard to completely separate the boycott from the ongoing fallout over Trump’s executive order on immigration, the Democrats specifically charged that Pruitt had not answered their questions to their satisfaction.
“If he cannot answer the multitude of questions we’ve asked about his record and views, neither we nor the American people can have confidence that Pruitt is working to keep air and water clean, rather than protecting the profits of polluters,” Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley said in a statement.
Pruitt is controversial with Democrats because he has spent much of his energy as attorney general fighting the agency he is now close to leading. He repeatedly sued the EPA during the Obama administration, challenging the agency’s legal authority to regulate toxic mercury pollution, smog, carbon emissions from power plants and the quality of wetlands and other waters. He has proudly described himself as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.”
In Oklahoma, Pruitt established a “Federalism Unit” within the attorney general’s office to “more effectively combat unwarranted regulation and systematic overreach” by the federal government. Along with like-minded attorneys general, he challenged the Obama administration not just over environmental regulations but in lawsuits over Obama’s immigration policies, the Affordable Care Act and Wall Street reforms created after the 2008 financial crisis.
Pruitt’s combative approach to the agency has won him praise from Republicans and from the oil and gas industry, which has helped fund his political campaigns and his fights against what he calls the EPA’s burdensome and unnecessary regulations during the Obama years. But his nomination to lead the EPA has enraged environmental groups, which launched an all-out campaign over the past month, accusing him of being a climate-change denier and shill for the fossil fuel industry who had done little to protect the environment in Oklahoma.
While Pruitt’s confirmation hearing earlier this month was less contentious than those of some other cabinet appointees, it wasn’t exactly a cakewalk, either.
Questioned repeatedly by Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) about whether he would avoid involvement in a series of ongoing cases against the EPA that he has been party to while in Oklahoma, Pruitt refused to promise that he would recuse himself if confirmed, saying only that he would rely on the advice of agency ethics lawyers.
“If you don’t agree to recuse yourself,” Markey said, “then you become plaintiff, defendant, judge and jury on the cases you are bringing right now as attorney general of Oklahoma against the EPA.”
The exchange was among several tense moments Pruitt encountered from committee Democrats earlier this month.
Merkley grilled Pruitt about a 2011 letter he sent to the EPA, saying it had overestimated air pollution from natural gas drilling. The letter was drafted by lawyers for Devon Energy, one of Oklahoma’s largest oil and gas companies. Merkley called Pruitt “a direct extension of an oil company” rather than an advocate for ordinary Oklahomans.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) challenged Pruitt about his lack of urgency regarding climate change. Pruitt, like other Trump cabinet nominees, had acknowledged that climate change is happening but said precisely how much humans are contributing to the problem and what policy actions to take remain open “to debate and dialogue.”
“Why is the climate changing?” Sanders asked, requesting Pruitt’s “opinion” about the matter.
“My opinion is immaterial,” Pruitt replied.
“Really?” Sanders countered. “You are going to be the head of the agency to protect the environment, and your personal feelings about whether climate change is caused by human activity is immaterial?”