- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2003

The Senate faces a showdown today on the Bush administration’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

Republicans, trying to end objections from a handful of Democratic senators who want to block Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, have scheduled a cloture vote, which would limit debate and force an up-or-down vote soon. To pass, the cloture motion would require approval of 60 senators.

Most Democrats say they don’t dislike Mr. Leavitt, but some are using his nomination as an opportunity to force a broader debate on the administration’s environmental policy. The three senators seeking the Democratic nomination for president have placed a “hold” on his nomination — a way of drawing out debate and blocking action.

Mike Briggs, a spokesman for Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat and a presidential candidate, said Mr. Edwards’ objection to Mr. Leavitt is not personal, but rather based on concerns about how familiar Mr. Leavitt is with Clean Air Act mandates.

Another objector is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat. Mrs. Clinton has said she opposes Mr. Leavitt because she wants the administration to provide answers about air quality from the rubble at the site of the World Trade Center in the days immediately after the September 11 attacks.

Republicans called those holds “political blackmail.”

“They see the whole thing as a zero-sum game, a proxy for their political interests, and they’ve chosen obstruction as their sole tactic,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and member of the Environment and Public Works Committee. “It is my hope that these games will end on Monday, that the obstruction will end, and this outstanding administrator will get a vote.”

Republican vote-counters said they expect all Republicans to support the nomination, and are cautiously optimistic they have the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. Many Democrats have said they support Mr. Leavitt, though they oppose the Bush administration’s environmental policies.

It would be the first time a cloture motion has succeeded in this Congress. So far, 13 cloture motions — including 11 votes on three judicial nominees — have failed, with Democrats constituting all or nearly all of the opponents.

This past week, Republicans failed to win a motion to debate their class-action reform bill, with only 59 senators — one shy of the requirement — voting to go forward.

As for the EPA vote, the administration is standing behind its candidate and says he is well-qualified for the job.

“Governor Leavitt is an exceptional nominee. He has a strong environmental record and a reputation for handling environmental issues in a spirit of openness and bipartisanship,” White House spokeswoman Ashley Snee said.

The administration said Mr. Leavitt has met with nearly 50 senators and answered 450 questions.

Republicans said the objections at this point boil down to political grandstanding before next year’s presidential election, and argue that Democrats haven’t gotten traction on environmental issues in some time.

To be sure, some Democrats do oppose Mr. Leavitt based on his record.

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat, has asked the Congressional Research Service to evaluate accusations about “Leavitt’s poor record of enforcing environmental laws in Utah” and he said scheduling today’s vote short-circuits that inquiry.

“I am expecting their report as soon as next week. The impatience of the [Republican] majority will not allow CRS the time to get the credible answers about Leavitt’s record that are needed to make an informed decision,” he said.

Mr. Leavitt passed the Environment and Public Works Committee earlier this month, but only after surviving a committee boycott by Democrats and Sen. James M. Jeffords, Vermont independent. When committee members showed up two weeks later, Mr. Leavitt won approval 16-2.

Mr. Leavitt, who is serving his third term as governor of Utah, would succeed Christine Todd Whitman, who resigned as EPA administrator in May.

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