Wednesday, October 1, 2003

Democrats, including two presidential hopefuls, boycotted a Senate committee meeting yesterday, preventing Utah’s governor from being approved as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“This has nothing to do with the nomination; this is all about Election 2004,” said Sen. Craig Thomas, Wyoming Republican and member of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

The committee had planned to vote on Gov. Michael O. Leavitt’s EPA nomination yesterday but was blocked because none of the eight committee Democrats showed up to the meeting. To hold a vote, the panel must have 10 members present, including two Democrats.

“The Democrats, in boycotting this markup, have publicly shunned committee precedent and insulted one of the most highly qualified people ever to be nominated for this job,” said committee Chairman Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, who has reset the vote for Oct. 15.

The Democrats — who have been using the Leavitt nomination to criticize the Bush administration’s environmental policies — said in a letter that Mr. Leavitt’s answers to their hundreds of written questions are incomplete. The group includes Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and presidential hopefuls Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bob Graham of Florida.

The letter did not cite specific examples.

Sen. James M. Jeffords, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats and is ranking member of the committee, signed the Democrats’ letter and attended the committee meeting. He said Mr. Leavitt and the Bush administration must answer questions that he and Democrats have.

Mr. Jeffords voiced the Democrats’ complaint that the Bush administration has weakened standards for clean air and water, is not cleaning up hazardous chemical-waste sites under the Superfund program and “is refusing to give us the answers” about these issues.

“I consider him a friend. … The issues are not related to his qualifications,” Mr. Jeffords said of Mr. Leavitt.

“Many of us have questions that the administration and Gov. Leavitt have not answered,” Mrs. Clinton said after a Superfund rally Democrats held yesterday afternoon, during which she and other Democrats complained the administration is not forcing companies to pay for cleanup of polluted sites.

Mrs. Clinton also wants to know the extent to which the White House influenced the EPA to give false assurances that the air around the collapsed World Trade Center was safe, as indicated by a recent EPA inspector-general report.

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, called the Democrats’ behavior “political blackmail,” and Sen. Michael D. Crapo, Idaho Republican, said Democrats are turning the nomination process into “an attack on the president in the presidential-election cycle.”

Mr. Inhofe said Democrats submitted nearly 400 questions to Mr. Leavitt, compared to 67 questions Republicans asked Clinton EPA nominee Carol Browner in 1993.

Mr. Leavitt could not give the detailed answers to some of the questions, Mr. Inhofe said, because they were about ongoing EPA deliberations, regulations under development and enforcement matters pending in court — issues he could not prudently respond to at this point.

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