Democrats Save Environmental Fight for ’04

Posted July 11, 2003 at 6:33pm

Senators in both parties are preparing for a pitched battle when President Bush nominates a new Environmental Protection Agency administrator, but the fight is unlikely to trigger a spending spree on issue advertisements by interest groups who favor saving their resources for the 2004 elections.

Democrats, however, are expected to use the nomination hearings as a platform to critique the White House’s environmental policies in the runup to next year’s elections.

“This is an extreme administration way out of the mainstream on the environment,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee. “The American people are just waking up to it, but I want to make sure this is my opportunity through the confirmation process to make those points.”

The nine Democratic White House aspirants, especially those currently in the Senate, are expected to loudly criticize Bush’s environmental record when nomination hearings begin.

“The nomination process is one setting in which the presidential candidates will attempt to draw a big distinction from themselves and President Bush on the environment,” said Phillip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust.

“I have been fighting with the administration about their effort to gut the clean air laws,” noted Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), who is seeking the Democratic nomination. “This is very important to me and I will be active.”

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), another presidential aspirant, said, “Frankly, I don’t have high hopes” for a nominee that would be acceptable to Democrats.

Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters are also expected to take very public stands when Bush names an administrator, but senior officials in these organizations said it’s doubtful their strategy would include costly advertising campaigns.

A leading contender for the job is believed to be current Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R), who served in the Senate from 1993 through 1999. Based on Senate tradition, Kempthorne would likely be confirmed by his former colleagues.

“He was always a hard-right conservative, but he was well-liked,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide, who asked not to be named.

Most environmentalists direct their criticism about Bush’s environmental policies at the White House and not former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who resigned her post in May. The thinking among many environmentalists is that it doesn’t matter who is picked to head EPA, because all of the decisions will be made from the Oval Office.

“Part of the thinking we are going through right now is how much energy does one want to put into a nomination fight for an EPA administrator,” said Debbie Sease, national legislative director for Sierra Club. “Part of the equation is does it matter who is at the helm?”

“Instead of spending our resources, we are trying to pick our battles strategically,” she added.

Those battles will occur next year, as environmental groups ramp up for the elections when control of Congress and the White House is up for grabs.

Mark Longabaugh, a top official at the League of Conservation Voters, described the upcoming EPA nomination as “a broader campaign issue about the Bush administration’s total contempt for the environment.

“I wouldn’t say at one point we might want to cut a spot or run a spot about Kempthorne,” Longabaugh said. But he does not think there will be “a large media campaign to stop a nomination.”

Still, committee Democrats vowed to put aside their personal relationships with Kempthorne and review the Idaho governor’s environmental record closely if Bush nominated him.

“I like him and I know him well,” said Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), the ranking member on the EPW panel. “But we will examine him very closely on what he intends to do.”

“We are going to look very closely at whoever comes forward, whether it is a former Senator or whomever,” added Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who also serves on the EPW Committee.

Last week, the White House named EPA official Marianne Lamont Horinko as the acting administrator to serve in the position until Bush selects a replacement for Whitman.

Should these environmental groups launch an advertising blitz targeting the eventual nominee or Bush’s environmental policies, Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said it is incumbent on people and interests who support the president to counter it.

“I think they are going to have to do that, because it is so one-sided the way it is,” Inhofe said. “You have all of these hard-left, liberal extremist groups.”

“If the community is concerned about having energy for America and isn’t willing to rise up and be heard, it will all be one sided,” the Oklahoma Republican added.

So far, the business community has no concrete plans to launch an aggressive advertisement campaign in the event of a nomination, two well-connected business lobbyists said.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee are expected to use a nomination fight to distinguish themselves from the other party, raise money on the issue or both.

“My biggest role will be to use it as a basis to encourage our candidates to contrast” the parties’ environmental priorities, said DSCC Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.). “I think it is a good issue to talk to the American people about and … if that fires up would-be contributors, we will accept it.”

NRSC Chairman George Allen (Va.) was reluctant to reveal what his upcoming fundraising pitches might be, but Senate Republicans are already raising money by invoking the names of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

As for a potential nomination battle, Allen said it will show that Democrats are more interested in engaging in “more obstructionism and more negativity.”