Leavitt Nomination Approved by Senate

Published November 21, 2003

Three-term Utah Governor Mike Leavitt assumed the reins of the Environmental Protection Agency on October 28 as the U.S. Senate overcame several procedural obstacles and confirmed the Bush nominee by a vote of 88-8.

The nomination initially encountered smooth sailing as the bipartisan Western Governors’ Association passed a September 15 resolution endorsing Leavitt’s nomination. Notable among the Western governors’ endorsements was that of Bill Richardson, former Energy Secretary in the Clinton administration. Leavitt additionally garnered the high-profile endorsement of former Maryland governor Parris Glendening (D), who praised Leavitt’s pro-regulatory stance on “smart-growth” and other land-use issues.

Democrats Engage in “Obstructionism”

However, Senate Democrats on October 1 put the Bush administration on notice that the confirmation process would not be an easy one. During an Environment and Public Works Committee vote on Leavitt, all of the Democrats walked out of the session, precluding the quorum necessary for Leavitt’s approval. The boycott was unprecedented in Senate history and caused anger among Leavitt supporters.

“I think the Presidential year started early this time around,” said Committee chairperson James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma). “I’m sure that’s the real reason this is all going on.”

“Today is a sad day for democracy in America,” declared Keith McCoy, director of environmental quality for the National Association of Manufacturers. “This boycott of Gov. Leavitt’s nomination is not only unprecedented in EPW committee history, it’s most discouraging in light of the nominee’s impeccable environmental credentials and the ringing endorsements he’s received from numerous Democratic governors who’ve worked with him at the National Governors Association.”

“Continuing to hold both this eminently qualified nominee and the important work of the EPA hostage to campaign season politics can only be seen as obstructionism, and manufacturers hope these Senate Democrats will soon reconsider and give the nominee the committee vote he deserves,” McCoy added.

Nomination Put on Hold

The boycott ended on October 15, but the partisan wrangling did not. After the EPW committee voted 16-2 to submit Leavitt’s nomination to the full Senate, six Senate Democrats and Independent Jim Jeffords immediately used Senate procedural rules to place indefinite holds on the nomination.

Jeffords said he would preclude a vote until he received materials from the Bush administration regarding its implementation of reforms to the New Source Review provisions of the Clean Air Act. Jeffords had been seeking the materials for more than two years and hoped his hold on the Leavitt nomination would give him leverage to obtain the confidential materials.

Florida Senator Bob Graham said he would not remove his hold on the nomination until Leavitt met with him in person. Leavitt did meet individually with the Democrats on the Environment and Public Works Committee but had not scheduled individual meetings with Senators not sitting on that committee.

New Jersey’s Frank Lautenberg vowed to keep the nomination on hold until and unless Leavitt publicly vowed to reverse the “abysmal” environmental record of the Bush administration.

Hillary Clinton of New York stated she would not remove her hold until EPA gave her information regarding its cleanup efforts at the World Trade Center following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Presidential hopefuls Joe Lieberman (Connecticut), John Kerry (Massachusetts), and John Edwards (North Carolina) asserted a variety of reasons for their opposition to a vote on Leavitt. Leavitt supporters viewed the holds as a byproduct of the Senators’ Presidential campaigns.

Republicans Move to Get Vote

Frustrated at the lack of progress in breaking the stalemate, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) made an October 23 filing for cloture. A cloture motion requires 30 hours of debate before a mandatory vote on the nomination. Sixty senators must approve the cloture motion for it to take effect.

Republicans were reluctant to move for cloture, fearing the perceived strong-arm tactic might alienate Democrats sitting on the fence regarding the nomination. Other Republicans did not wish to give Democrats extended floor time to criticize the Bush administration’s environmental policies.

Ultimately, the threat of a recess appointment motivated Frist to call for cloture. With Bush hinting he might appoint Leavitt during the upcoming winter recess, Senate Republicans feared they might suffer a backlash from the tactic, although it had previously been used by Democratic President Bill Clinton.

“It’s important that the President’s Cabinet be filled,” explained Frist spokesperson Amy Call. “We worked with the interested parties extensively on this nomination to remove the holds. It’s time to move forward.”

Ultimately, the expected contentious floor debate never materialized, as Jeffords and 36 Democrats joined all 51 Senate Republicans in voting to confirm Leavitt. Sporadic criticism of Leavitt and the Bush administration was overshadowed by the near unanimous support for the Bush nominee.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].