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On Capitol Hill, EPA chief gets an earful about Trump’s ‘downright offensive’ budget plan

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt attends a Cabinet meeting at the White House this month. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Another trip to Capitol Hill for Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, another reminder that lawmakers from both parties have no intention of approving the deep cuts President Trump is seeking at the agency.

Pruitt heard a familiar sentiment Tuesday from both Republican and Democratic members of a Senate Appropriations Committee — that a proposed 31 percent cut to EPA isn’t going to happen, and that shuttering key programs and laying off thousands of employees conflicts with the Trump administration’s stated goals about safeguarding the nation’s air and water.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) noted that while she supports Pruitt’s approach of focusing on the EPA’s central responsibilities while steering away from the climate policies of the Obama administration, the current budget proposal is “in direct contrast” to such an approach. She singled out aid to Alaska Native villages and a radon detection program as areas that have proven to save and improve lives.

“We have rejected changes like these in past, and I will certainly push my colleagues to do so again this year,” Murkowski said.

Democrats were even more blunt.

“The budget request before us today is downright offensive,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said as he cited a litany of programs slated for elimination or massive cuts. “I can’t square this with your rhetoric about returning EPA to its core responsibilities. Nothing was spared. EPA’s core is hollowed out. … These cuts aren’t an intent to rein in spending, they are an intentional step to undermine science and ignore environmental and public health realities.”

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) called the Trump administration’s proposal “really the worst I’ve seen.”

“This budget that you’ve proposed doesn’t uphold your agency’s mission,” Leahy said. “We ought to be doubling down on our investment to protect our environment for the sake of our children and grandchildren. We ought to curb the effects of climate change. Instead, the administration is tearing down the legacy of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.”

Tuesday’s hearing came after another on in the House earlier this month, in which Pruitt encountered similar resistance from both sides of the aisle. At each hearing, he defended the White House proposal, saying the agency could still live up to its mission with proper management, better leadership and less waste.

The Trump administration would reduce EPA’s funding by $2.4 billion annually — a larger percentage cut than at any other federal agency. The White House wants to shrink the agency’s workforce by thousands of people and sharply reduce or end a variety of national and regional programs.

The Trump administration has proposed nearly halving grants that support state and local efforts to address everything from pesticide exposure to air and water quality. It would slash nearly one-third of funding for Superfund cleanups — though Pruitt has insisted that he will prioritize the program, which help restore some of the nation’s most polluted sites.

Dozens of other programs would be zeroed out entirely, including funding for radon detection, lead-risk reduction, environmental justice and projects along the U.S.-Mexico border. Also slated for elimination are efforts aimed at restoring the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound. Plus the agency would have fewer funds for prosecuting environmental crimes or researching climate change and other issues.

On Tuesday, senators from both parties pressed Pruitt to live up to his promises to improve Superfund cleanups, to support cleanup efforts of the Chesapeake Bay and to maintain scientific integrity at the agency. They questioned his decision to reject the agency’s own analysis in declining to ban a pesticide called chlorpyrifos, as well as the agency’s decision to remove key parts of EPA’s climate change website.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) questioned Pruitt about the agency’s unusual decision to not renew the terms of dozens of scientific advisers.

“None of those folks have been fired. Those individuals can reapply for spots,” Pruitt said, noting that the advisory boards need more geographic diversity.

Udall pointed out that while the Trump administration has proposed shedding 3,200 employees from the EPA — nearly a quarter of its workforce — Congress will have the ultimate say on funding. Given that the agency has begun a buyout process aimed at up to 1,200 employees by the end of the summer, Udall asked for Pruitt’s word that the administration would not try to circumvent the wishes of Congress and continue to shrink the agency unless directed by lawmakers.

“There are no pink slips being issued at the agency,” Pruitt assured him, saying the reduction in workers is happening primarily through attrition, a hiring freeze and voluntary buyouts. “We respect the role of Congress in that regard.”

Read more:

Scott Pruitt vows to speed the nation’s Superfund cleanups. Communities wonder how.

EPA plans to buy out more than 1,200 employees this summer

Scott Pruitt, outspoken and forceful, moves to the center of power within the Trump administration

EPA just gave notice to dozens of scientific advisory board members that their time is up