Leavitt confirmed as EPA chief

Senate Democrats drop long-standing opposition

bipartisan vote is 88-8

October 29, 2003|By Paul Singer and Shannon McMahon | Paul Singer and Shannon McMahon,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - In a broad bipartisan vote yesterday, the Senate confirmed Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt as the next head of the Environmental Protection Agency. But with elections a year away and the agency under fire, observers said Leavitt is stepping into a political firestorm.

After delaying Leavitt's nomination for several weeks to draw attention to their concerns about the Bush administration's environmental policies, Democrats ultimately dropped their opposition, resulting in an 88-8 vote to confirm.

But Republicans and Democrats agreed the president's opponents will scrutinize the new administrator's every step for possible ammunition.

Leavitt's goal will be "to try to do nothing," said Christopher Horner, senior fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank. "He was not brought in to break china, he was brought in to be a soothing voice."

Leavitt issued a statement yesterday thanking the Senate for the "strong, bipartisan vote" and adding, "I accept this responsibility knowing that the president is committed to substantially more environmental progress, and doing it in a way that does not compromise our place in the world competitively."

But environmentalists and Democrats might not be easily soothed. "It's too late for that," said Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA official who is now director of the Environmental Integrity Project. "People are already so riled up right now."

Leavitt's confirmation vote took place the day after 13 states sued to overturn the EPA's controversial new rules under the Clean Air Act. The rules are intended to allow power plants to make upgrades without having to install costly new pollution-control technologies, but the states argue that the rules undermine the Clean Air Act's strict limits on air pollution.

Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, said that with elections looming, the administration wants Leavitt to reinforce its message that the president is a moderate on environmental issues.

President Bush "doesn't want this to be a high-intensity issue Democrats can mobilize on. He wants to fuzz up the differences. He wants to kind of tamp it down," Jacobs said.

Horner said that the environment is one of the few issues on which voters trust Democrats far more than Republicans and, while Bush is unlikely to eliminate that gap, the GOP would at least like to narrow it.

Most political analysts expect Bush to try to burnish his environmental record, which critics say has been sadly deficient, as the 2004 election approaches. But the president will also face pressure from business groups, some of his biggest donors, not to impose significant new environmental restrictions.

Leavitt's predecessor, Christine Todd Whitman, found herself caught between the EPA's environmentalist tradition and White House conservatives.

It is into this maelstrom of competing pressures that Leavitt now steps. He has built a reputation of pursing consensus and dialogue, and yesterday Republicans praised his willingness to bring parties together to resolve conflicts.

"Governor Leavitt is an exceptional leader who shares my commitment to reaching out across partisan lines to get things done," Bush said in a statement. "I know he will work closely with me to build upon my administration's initiatives to make our air and water cleaner, protect the land, and use technology to improve our environment while our economy grows and creates jobs."

A White House spokesman said Leavitt might assume his new duties as soon as Monday.

But Schaeffer said he is skeptical that the administration has any interest in involving environmentalists in dialogue, noting that the agency held a briefing last Friday on the new Clean Air Act rules - and invited staff members only of the Republican governors.

John Millett, an EPA spokesman, said the agency is planning a similar meeting for Democrats, though the invitation for that meeting has not yet been completed. Millett said the EPA did not set out to have separate briefings for Republicans and Democrats, but that was the only way the agency could organize the meetings "in this very political atmosphere."

Sen. James M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which was responsible for moving Leavitt's nomination through the Senate, said the 88 votes "show that Mike Leavitt enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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