Senate Democrats stalled action on President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, boycotting a committee vote to advance Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt amid questions about his commitment to upholding clean air and water protections.
It was the second time in as many days that Democrats had taken the unusual step of exploiting committee rules to halt action on Trump’s cabinet nominees. On Wednesday, Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee voted to suspend the panel’s rules, allowing them to advance the nominations of Steven Mnuchin to run the Treasury Department and Tom Price to head Health and Human Services.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee could try a similar tactic to dislodge Pruitt’s nomination, but it was not immediately clear Wednesday whether -- or when -- they would take that step.
Senator John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming who heads the committee, called the Democratic blockade "a disappointing turn of events,” and said it would keep the EPA rudderless at a critical time. "This amounts to nothing more than political theater at the expense of working on issues we care about."
But Democrats said they were compelled to delay action on Pruitt because the nominee had failed to substantively answer their questions about rules governing lead in gasoline, air pollution and toxic chemicals.
"I take no joy in not being a participant in this business meeting scheduled today," said Delaware Senator Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Pruitt’s answers were "at best incomplete and evasive," Carper said outside the committee hearing room, adding: "We need the truth."
Pruitt has drawn intense scrutiny because he has spent much of his career battling the agency he is now tapped to lead. As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt went to court to fight more than a dozen actions by EPA, including its landmark declaration that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health. During a confirmation hearing last month, Pruitt softened his stance on that and other issues, insisting that environmental protection and energy development can go hand in hand.
With Senate Democrats huddled outside the hearing room, Republicans inside took turns lambasting the delay.
Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, called the boycott "a stunt." "Our constituents elected us to do our job, and that includes coming to committee hearings and voicing our opinions," Capito said. "Failing to show up does not serve our constituents."
Read more: Trump’s EPA Pick Softens Positions Amid Democratic Criticisms
Outside, Democrats told reporters that they were demanding transparency.
"This is kind of an affront on the Senate’s role on advise and consent," said Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey.
Barrasso previously rebuffed Democrats’ request to delay a vote on Pruitt, countering that the nominee has answered roughly 1,200 questions -- more than any past nominee to lead the EPA. "The committee’s review of Attorney General Pruitt’s nomination has been unparalleled in its scrutiny, thoroughness, and respect for minority rights," Barrasso said in a letter to Carper on Tuesday.
Senator Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, predicted Pruitt would eventually be confirmed. "We’ll get past this," Wicker said, casting the Democratic delay as less about the Pruitt nomination than "their disappointment with the results of the November election"
Under historic committee rules, at least two members of the minority must be present to constitute a quorum and allow the panel to take action on legislation and nominations. The committee could attempt to change those rules or temporarily suspend them in a bid to move Pruitt’s nomination to the Senate floor.
(Updates with quotes from Barrasso, Carper, Booker and others beginning in sixth paragraph.)
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