- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Senate Democrats, including a few presidential hopefuls, used a committee hearing on President Bush’s choice for Environmental Protection Agency administrator to attack the administration’s environmental policies.

Several senators placed holds on Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt’s nomination. Among them were Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, both of whom yesterday renewed their pledge to block the nomination until key questions are answered.

“I want answers,” Mrs. Clinton said as she took a brief break from Mr. Leavitt’s hearing before the Environment and Public Works Committee. “This hold is primarily about the administration he wishes to join.”

Senators can place “holds” to block nominations on the Senate floor.

Mr. Lieberman, a presidential candidate, was not at yesterday’s hearing and neither was fellow White House hopeful and committee member Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, who had not taken a position on the nomination, a spokesman said.

In a statement, Mr. Lieberman said that Mr. Leavitt refused to answer written questions before the hearing.

This “gag order,” he said, is typical of the Bush administration, which has “systematically suppressed scientific and public health information that conflicts with its polluter-friendly environmental agenda.”

Mr. Lieberman wants Mr. Leavitt’s assurance that he will lead the EPA independent of White House influence.

Most Democrats liked Mr. Leavitt personally but wanted to make sure he could stand up to the administration on key issues. In his answers, Mr. Leavitt both supported the administration and vowed to work across party lines.

Among the other Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts held the nomination, a Republican aide said, and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina had pledged to put a hold on it as well unless the administration agreed to study health consequences of administration-proposed changes that Democrats said would weaken clean air standards.

“It’s all about presidential politics, that’s clear,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and member of the committee. He called Democrats’ complaints “unfounded and outlandish.”

Mrs. Clinton wanted to know the extent to which the White House influenced the EPA to give false assurance to the public that air was safe in New York after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, as indicated by a recent EPA inspector general report. She also asked Mr. Leavitt whether he would retest buildings in New York.

Mr. Leavitt told Mrs. Clinton that he was not privy to ongoing conversations about retesting, and assured her that if faced with a situation similar to September 11, he would seek to get accurate information to the public.

Democrats said the administration is rolling back important environmental protections. They are concerned specifically that the New Source Review (NSR) reform weakens clean air standards, and that Mr. Bush is allowing industrial pollution to continue.

They said the administration has ignored their questions on these topics repeatedly.

Republicans defended the administration’s environmental policies. Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, said an EPA report showed that the air was cleaner today than when Mr. Bush took office. He cited several environmental improvements and said NSR reform didn’t allow more pollution, but simply allowed companies to modernize facilities.

Officials say the Senate will confirm Mr. Leavitt eventually. The committee votes on his nomination next week.

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