EPA chief braces for grilling from Senate Dems

EPA chief braces for grilling from Senate Dems
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Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittGovernment watchdog probing EPA’s handling of Hurricane Harvey response Wheeler won’t stop America’s addiction to fossil fuels Overnight Energy: Trump rolls back methane pollution rule | EPA watchdog to step down | China puts tariffs on US gas MORE is certain to face harsh questioning Tuesday as he testifies for the first time to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

It will be only Pruitt’s second appearance before a congressional oversight panel in the year since taking the helm of the EPA, and Democrats want to make the most of it.

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“There will not be a lack of questioning,” Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinOvernight Health Care: Senators target surprise medical bills | Group looks to allow Medicaid funds for substance abuse programs | FDA launches anti-vaping campaign for teens Bipartisan group wants to lift Medicaid restriction on substance abuse treatment More Dems come out in public opposition to Kavanaugh MORE (D-Md.) said. “There are so many issues that we are concerned about: the manner of which the agency is protecting the environment, the use of scientific information, the use of scientific experts, the climate polices, the energy policy.”

Since taking over as administrator in February, Pruitt has reshaped the agency’s agenda, with a heavy focus on rolling back initiatives from the Obama administration.

He has moved to downsize the EPA, leaving hundreds of positions unfilled through a combination of buyouts, resignations and hiring freezes.

And he has made major changes to the agency’s science advisory boards, recruiting more industry voices and barring scientists who receive EPA grants from being members. The latter policy move has spurred legal challenges, including a lawsuit last week from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Those issues and more are likely to come up during Tuesday’s hearing.

“We’re going to put a spotlight on the most anti-environmental EPA administrator in American history. We’re going to make it very clear how public health in America is under assault because of his terrible stewardship of the most important of all agencies,” Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyOvernight Defense: Mattis dismisses talk he may be leaving | Polish president floats 'Fort Trump' | Dem bill would ban low-yield nukes Dems introduce bill to ban low-yield nukes Some employees' personal data revealed in State Department email breach: report MORE (D-Mass.) said of the hearing. “We’re going to try to make it more clear to the American people what the impact is of having someone like him at the EPA.”

The ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperTrump Jr. to Dem Senator: 'You admitted to hitting your wife so hard it gave her a black eye!' Melania Trump's spokeswoman gets Hatch Act warning for #MAGA tweet EPA to abandon restrictions against chemical linked to climate change MORE (Del.), promised with a wink that the hearing with Pruitt would be “interesting and lively.”

Republicans have hailed Pruitt’s tenure and are likely to mount a defense of his record. They say Pruitt is scaling back the regulatory overreach that was the hallmark of the Obama administration.

“I think he’s doing a great job. He’s tough. He’s responding to people. My advice to him — don’t deviate from his priorities,” said Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofePentagon releases report on sexual assault risk Trump privately calls Mattis ‘Moderate Dog’: report Cruz gets help from Senate GOP in face of serious challenge from O’Rourke MORE (R-Okla.), a member of the committee who represents Pruitt’s home state.

The view is very different among Democrats, where Pruitt is a lightning rod for criticism.

Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerCNN editor: Booker's 'groping incident' 'different' from Kavanaugh allegation Poll: Most Massachusetts voters don't think Warren should run for president in 2020 Trump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle MORE (D-N.J.), who is seen as a potential White House candidate in 2020, said it took Pruitt far too long to come before the committee.

“It’s gravely disappointing that we haven’t had a moment of greater accountability like this,” he said.

Behind the scenes, Democrats on the Environment panel have been studying up to prepare for Pruitt’s testimony.

Markey held a meeting with former EPA employees and members on the Senate Climate Task Force last Tuesday, seeking their suggestions for questions to ask the administrator. 

Democrats have also studied footage of Pruitt’s last appearance in December in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s environment subpanel — but mainly for a lesson in what not to do.

“The reaction from a lot of Senate aides was that House Democrats swung and missed after the first couple members. We didn’t know this was going to happen because it was the first time Pruitt was testifying,” said a source with knowledge of committee Democrats’ strategy conversations. “What they know now is that he’s very good at lawyering himself out of answers. People acknowledged that he’s good at speaking platitudes and not answering questions directly.”

Pruitt largely maintained his cool during the House hearing in December, answering his questions patiently and resisting attempts by Democrats to corral him into firm promises.

Senate Democrats will be approaching this meeting with the goal of making an impact, the source said.

“They want to land punches. This is basically red meat and the Democrats are a bunch of lions that are trying to get a bite,” the source said.

An EPA spokesman said Pruitt intends to use the hearing to promote his mission of protecting the public and the environment.

“From providing regulatory certainty, cleaning up toxic Superfund sites, starting the process to eradicate lead poisoning from our drinking water and much more, Administrator Pruitt will continue to uphold EPA’s core mission of protecting the environment and human health,” said EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox.

Inhofe said he has full confidence that Pruitt can handle the barrage of questions from Democrats, noting he answered hundreds of them during his confirmation hearings.

“If he can maintain his sanity in his life after going through 1,600 questions for the record, I think he can handle this all right,” Inhofe told The Hill.

But Inhofe did have some advice for the EPA chief: shoot down speculation about him vying for Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump vows to get rid of 'stench' at DOJ, FBI NY Times, McCabe give Trump perfect cover to fire Rosenstein, Sessions House Judiciary on NY Times article: I intend to subpoena 'McCabe Memos' MORE’s attorney general spot, something Politico first reported in early January.

“Get rid of this idea of accepting at any time being the attorney general because we don’t need him there,” Inhofe said.

The Hill's Timothy Cama contributed to this report