The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted 11-10 along party lines to advance the nomination of Andrew Wheeler to become administrator of the EPA.
He was among five of President Donald Trump’s nominees who moved a step closer to taking key administration jobs on Tuesday, including two for the EPA and one who would fill a two-year-old vacancy at the top of the Federal Highway Administration.
Wheeler, currently the agency's deputy administrator, has been leading the agency in an acting role since July, when Scott Pruitt resigned from the position amid ethics allegations, and will likely be confirmed by the Republican Senate majority when a vote is arranged.
Wheeler’s nomination advanced despite questions by lawmakers from both parties on the panel about whether the agency will issue clean water standards for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, toxic chemicals that are resistant to degradation in the environment and have been linked to numerous health problems.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who last week had expressed fears that Wheeler may not issue the PFAS standards, on Tuesday said the acting administrator had visited her office and assured her that he would address her concerns.
“With that in mind, and considering other policy concerns to West Virginia, I have no concerns supporting his nomination,” Capito said. “However I intend to closely track the steps EPA and other agencies are taking to address this public health and environmental health crisis, which has had a particular impact on West Virginians living in affected communities to ensure that the federal government is efficiently responsive to their concerns.”
Despite their opposition to Wheeler, Democrats stopped short of trying to delay the vote on the former Environment and Public Works Committee staffer who also later had a long career as a lobbyist and fossil fuel attorney. Ranking member Thomas R. Carper of Delaware lamented what he called the rushed process and the rollbacks of several regulations at the EPA under the nominee.
“We should not move so quickly with Mr. Wheeler’s nomination in light of his failure to ensure that EPA acts responsibly, especially in areas where there are such clear ‘win-wins’ that most EPA administrators would have welcomed the opportunity to implement,” Carper said.
But Chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming commended Wheeler for doing “an outstanding job” leading the agency since July.
As the head of the nation’s top environmental regulator, Wheeler can expect to be summoned by House Democrats to explain his justifications for the agency’s policy actions, including rewriting or rolling back several rules meant to control greenhouse gas emissions and public health.
At the same Tuesday meeting, the panel voted 11-10, also along party lines, to advance former chemical industry attorney Peter Wright to lead the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, which oversees the Superfund program and coordinates emergency responses to toxic spills and unauthorized chemical discharges.
Wright was once a lawyer with The Monsanto Co. before its acquisition last year by Bayer AG, and also spent much of his career as counsel for the Dow Chemical Co., now DowDupont, which has been found responsible for several Superfund sites.
While awaiting confirmation, Wright last year started working at the EPA as special counsel, causing Senate Democrats to accuse the Trump administration of trying to circumvent Congress’ role of providing advice and consent for the position to which he had been nominated.
The lawmakers on the panel also voted by voice to approve Nicole Nason’s nomination to become the first administrator of the Federal Highway Administration in two years.
The post of FHWA administrator has been vacant since Trump took office in 2017. His first nominee for the post, Paul Trombino III, withdrew in December 2017.
Nason is currently the assistant secretary for administration in the State Department. She won Senate voice vote approval twice in President George W. Bush’s administration, when she was confirmed to run the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 2006 to 2008, and to be assistant secretary of transportation for government affairs from 2003 to 2006.
Her federal career also includes serving as assistant commissioner for government affairs at Customs and Border Protection, and as counsel for the House Judiciary Committee. She has a black belt in karate, and founded a group focused on women’s empowerment through martial arts.
At a hearing last week, Nason said she would emphasize making highways safer, especially in rural areas, and would work with Congress to find a solution to the looming shortfall of funding in the Highway Trust Fund.
The last highway bill (PL 114-94) plugged the funding gap through 2020 by taking money from the general budget. The next bill will require finding $85 billion, according to Carper, who on Tuesday said he hoped Nason will work with the panel on the legislation.
The committee also voted to approve former Louisiana congressman John Fleming’s nomination to become assistant secretary of Commerce for Economic Development and John Ryder, who has served as counsel to the Republican National Committee, to become a member of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s board of directors.
Herb Jackson contributed to this report.