Gina McCarthy’s confirmation to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency puts the former Republican aide in charge of developing wide-ranging climate- change rules that business group oppose.
McCarthy, as the agency’s assistant administrator, had directed clean-air rulemaking in President Barack Obama’s first term, forcing coal-fired power plants to curb mercury emissions, imposing new standards on boilers in paper mills and setting limits on pollution from cement plants. She will write the first rules limiting carbon emissions from power plants.
"Gina’s confirmation and experience bring greater certainty to the agency at this critical time," Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, a Washington-based group representing utilities, said in a statement after the 59- 40 vote yesterday. "Gina has a keen understanding of the challenges facing our industry, and we have had a long and constructive relationship."
The Senate separately yesterday confirmed Thomas Perez to lead the Labor Department, where he has pledged to enforce laws on overtime pay. Perez will help push Obama’s agenda on issues including rewriting immigration law and raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour from $7.25.
Perez, 51, was confirmed 54-46, without Republican support.
The Senate moved to confirm stalled Obama nominees this week after legislative leaders resolved a dispute that included a threat by Democrats to strip the minority party’s right to stage a filibuster and block executive-branch nominees. The Senate will consider five nominees to the National Labor Relations Board next week.
McCarthy, 59, is a 25-year veteran of state and local government in New England, where she worked for Republicans including former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
"She’s worked for four Republican governors and the last Republican candidate for president," Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee told reporters before the vote. "We’re not likely to get a Democratic head of the Environmental Protection Agency who’s got a record any better than that."
With a strong Boston accent, short shock of white hair and disarming sense of humor, McCarthy won the praise of environmentalists, who largely support the administration’s efforts, and industry groups, which have fought them.
"What many in industry appreciate about her style is her directness and openness to engagement," Scott Segal, a lawyer representing power producers and oil refiners at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP, said when she was nominated in March. While utilities or coal producers may object to the regulation, "McCarthy listens and allows for the possibility of midcourse corrections," he said.
McCarthy takes over an agency that Republicans have criticized over pollution limits that they say will cost jobs and damage the economy by reducing the use of coal and raising the cost of electricity. The Republican-led House passed measures last year to reverse or halt a number of EPA rules McCarthy’s office issued.
"It’s no surprise to some that many of us, coal state colleagues, fight vigorously to oppose the president’s anti-coal policies," Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, said before the vote. "McCarthy has been the president’s field general in implementing these policies."
The EPA is central to delivering on Obama’s pledge to counter the carbon-dioxide emissions that scientists blame for causing global warming. Obama pledged last month to begin a sweeping effort to curb emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases warming the planet. The plan includes rules from the EPA that would reduce carbon pollution from power plants, the largest source of emissions in the country.
She also faces challenges over legislation for the health impacts of chemicals, the safety of chemical and fertilizer plants, water protection guidelines fought by farmers and fending off court challenges to rules the agency has already issued. The agency is also preparing a comprehensive study of the water impacts from hydraulic fracturing, a report that industry warns could lead to onerous regulation.
Republicans used Perez’s confirmation hearing in April to criticize what they said were ideological decisions he made as head of the Justice Department civil rights division. They questioned his decision to keep the Justice Department out of two whistle-blower lawsuits against the city of St. Paul, Minnesota. It was part of a deal where the city dropped an unrelated Supreme Court case that risked undermining a Justice Department enforcement tool in housing discrimination cases.