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Dems prepare to face off with Trump's pick to lead EPA

Dems prepare to face off with Trump's pick to lead EPA
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Democrats are gearing up for battle as President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida MORE's pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency heads to the Capitol for his confirmation hearing this week. 

Scott Pruitt will testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday, giving his opponents their first chance to poke into his record as Oklahoma attorney general, a position he has held since 2011.

Pruitt’s nomination is one of Trump’s most controversial. In Oklahoma, he has emerged as one of the EPA’s most aggressive legal adversaries, and his past tepid statements about the science behind climate change have solidified climate hawks’ opposition to his nomination.  

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Democrats on the Environment and Public Works Committee last week previewed an aggressive line of questioning they hope will lay bare his positions during Wednesday’s hearing.  

“We’re going to ask tough questions, fair questions,” Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats allege EPA plans to withhold funding from 'anarchist' cities | Montana asks court to throw out major public lands decisions after ousting BLM director | It's unknown if fee reductions given to oil producers prevented shutdowns Democrats allege EPA plans to withhold funding from 'anarchist' cities Energy innovation bill can deliver jobs and climate progress MORE (Del.), the committee's top Democrat, said this week.  

“We want to be guided by the truth and real insights. At the end of the day, we don’t want to go back, we want to go forward."

Committee Democrats have landed on at least two key talking points against Pruitt: that his nomination represents a conflict of interest because of his work in Oklahoma and that his views on climate change are out of step with the majority of climate scientists. 

They will likely employ those arguments as they push Pruitt to answer tough questions for the record.  

In letters to government ethics offices on Thursday, nine Democrats on the committee asked for more information about Pruitt’s past campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry, as well as clarification on how he will run the EPA in light of his lawsuits against it.

Democrats have also zeroed in on Pruitt’s past statements about climate change. 

In a May op-ed with a fellow attorney general, Pruitt wrote that the climate debate is “far from settled” and that “scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.”

That statement, Pruitt’s ties to the oil industry and his litigious approach to the EPA enraged the environmental movement, whose Senate allies have vowed to fight Pruitt’s nomination. 

“I think the most reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that in every area he has the ability to exercise discretion … he will lean in as far as he possibly can to protect the fossil fuel industry that has for so long been his patron,” Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseHillicon Valley: Threatening emails raise election concerns | Quibi folds after raising nearly B | Trump signs law making it a crime to hack voting systems Trump signs legislation making hacking voting systems a federal crime Congress must repeal tax breaks for the wealthy passed in CARES Act MORE (D-R.I.), a committee member, said at a press conference. 

“I think there’s a lot of concern.” 

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said Pruitt “has made his primary professional mission to undermine the authorities that the EPA operates under.”

“I can’t imagine that he’s going to hide that,” he said.

Pruitt, like most Cabinet picks, hasn't addressed the criticism publicly since his nomination was announced in December. But his supporters expect the Oklahoman to cruise through his confirmation hearing and go to the Senate floor on, at worst, a party-line vote from the committee.  

Scott Segal, an energy lobbyist at Bracewell, said Democrats’ arguments won’t stick. 

He contended Pruitt’s lawsuits against the EPA don’t reveal an underlying bias against the agency, but rather its direction under President Obama. And he said Pruitt’s statements about climate change shouldn’t prevent him from becoming the country’s top environmental regulator.

“Surely environmentalists don’t believe that you have to support the Clean Power Plan in order to prove that you believe in climate change,” Segal said, noting Pruitt’s lawsuit against Obama's chief EPA climate rule, which is currently on hold as the lawsuit proceeds.

Pruitt looks poised to clinch his confirmation as long as the Senate’s 52 Republicans are united in their support. But Pruitt backers are also bullish on his chances of attracting votes from moderate Democrats as well, especially those up for reelection in 2018.

"The lesson of [Trump's] populist message is there is support for someone who is committed to rule of law and a very close reading of statutory authorization,” Segal said. “If Pruitt stands for nothing else, he stands for that." 

Sens. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSusan Collins and the American legacy Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein Push to expand Supreme Court faces Democratic buzzsaw MORE (D-W.Va.) and Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by JobsOhio - Showdown: Trump-Biden debate likely to be nasty Senate Democrats want to avoid Kavanaugh 2.0 Harris faces pivotal moment with Supreme Court battle MORE (D-N.D.) have met with Pruitt since Trump announced his nomination in December. Both gave him positive reviews in post-meeting statements, and neither closed the door on supporting Pruitt when the Senate considers his confirmation. 

Officials in ruby-red West Virginia, which gave Trump 68.7 percent of the vote in November, blame federal regulations for at least part of the downturn in the state’s coal industry. In a statement after his meeting, Manchin said Pruitt “has the right experience for the position.” 

He told reporters this week that he gives a lot of leeway to presidential Cabinet nominations. 

“I think I’ve said this over and over again: Anybody who has an FBI background check done, their financial disclosures, and passes the ethics and is clean and squeaky clean, there would have to be a reason not to support somebody’s staff,” he said. “Because [Trump] won, he is president-elect and he has the right to put his staff together.”

Heitkamp said she discussed a handful of issues with Pruitt during their meeting, including the federal ethanol mandate that divides the oil and agriculture industries, both key sectors in North Dakota. 

But could she support Pruitt's nomination? 

“I don’t know yet, but we certainly had a very candid and very direct — I wouldn’t say high-level just because it was nerdy — a nerdy conversation about energy,” she said.

The outside lobbying efforts over Pruitt picked up last week. 

The Sierra Club released a series of digital ads against the nomination on Thursday, and the National Association of Manufacturers followed up with an ad buy supporting him on Friday. 

The League of Conservation Voters sent a letter to senators saying they should vote against Pruitt and his “radical record and the far-reaching damage he could do at the helm of the EPA."  

A slate of industry groups sent their own letter to members, supporting Pruitt as "a stalwart defender against federal intrusion into state and individual rights.”

Chris Warren, a spokesman for the industry-funded American Energy Alliance, predicted the confirmation process is “going to be noisy, a lot of bluster not just from environment groups but a lot of senators. It will be tough but I think he’s in a good position.”  

Democrats, though, are hankering for a fight over Pruitt, the environment and the future of the EPA.

“Is it possible that Mr. Pruitt will have an epiphany in this role?” Whitehouse said. 

“All things are possible, but I think we have to deal with what the reasonable conclusions are that his record suggests — unless we find something to the contrary — and he will have a very robust hearing to make that case for himself.”

Timothy Cama contributed