President Donald Trump is expected to formally tap acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler as early as this month to be the agency’s permanent chief, the first step in what could be a drawn-out confirmation battle.
An administration official said the administration is eyeing sending Wheeler’s nomination to the Senate over the next two weeks or so. But the official cautioned that timing could depend on how soon Trump, the Republican-controlled Senate, and the new Democratic-controlled House end the shutdown that has involved the Environmental Protection Agency.
Wheeler was on Capitol Hill Jan. 3 to congratulate newly elected senators in what he downplayed as a “social call,” which included a brief exchange with retiring Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
But the acting EPA chief also said he planned to meet later in the day with two senators who would play key roles in any confirmation: Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Tom Carper (Del.). He also planned meetings with other panel members.
In a brief interview, Wheeler noted that Trump tipped his hand in the fall by saying he planned to put the acting EPA head before the Senate for confirmation as administrator.
“I’d expect it [the nomination] anytime after noon today,” when the 116th Congress officially begins, Wheeler told Bloomberg Environment.
White House Won’t Comment
A White House spokesman declined to comment on the status of Wheeler’s nomination, saying it had “no personnel announcements at this time.”
The nomination would first be taken up by the Environment and Public Works Committee—a familiar setting for Wheeler, who worked there as a Republican aide from the mid-1990s until 2009.
If confirmed, Wheeler would succeed Scott Pruitt, who resigned in July amid questions about his ethics and spending decisions.
Pruitt drew fire in early 2017 for flying first class on international and domestic trips, using his staff for personal business, and renting a room from a lobbyist at well below the market rate. The former Oklahoma attorney general lasted 17 months as the EPA’s administrator and was the subject of more than a dozen investigations by the time of his resignation.
Senate GOP Margins Crucial
Wheeler was easily confirmed as the EPA’s deputy administrator last spring in a 53-45 Senate vote, though just three Democrats supported him.
Republicans in the midterm elections increased their margin in the Senate to 53-47. That gives Wheeler even better odds for confirmation, though perhaps with less Democratic support.
Two of the three Democrats who supported Wheeler, Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.), lost their reelection bids. That leaves Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) as the lone Democrat left who supported Wheeler.
But Wheeler backers are hopeful he’ll be able to translate the relatively cordial relationship he has had with Democratic members of the environment committee into support for his nomination on the Senate floor. Carper, the committee’s ranking Democrat, initially gave Wheeler positive reviews for improving the strained relationships between Pruitt and career EPA staff.
The acting EPA head also drew applause from some Democrats for rescinding a Pruitt effort to ease limits on highly polluting trucks, known as the glider rule.
But the Democrats’ enthusiasm has waned as Wheeler largely continued what environmental groups see as a series of regulatory rollbacks, including the EPA’s Dec. 28 proposal to retain older limits on mercury and other toxic air pollutants. The agency is not only rejecting any strengthening of those 2012 limits but also is considering another option to flat out repeal them.
Before his arrival to the EPA last year, Wheeler lobbied on behalf of several fossil fuel companies, including Murray Energy Corp., one of the largest coal mining companies in the U.S.
Wheeler’s lobbying activities have drawn fire from environmental groups, who argue he has only continued the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks.
Mike Danylak, a spokesman for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, told Bloomberg Environment that Barrasso “is very supportive of having Andrew Wheeler running the EPA.” But Danylak declined to comment on the timing of the nomination.
Any hearing would only come after a week’s notice, a requirement under committee rules, Danylak said.
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