The Senate voted Thursday to confirm Andrew Wheeler, a former energy lobbyist, to be deputy administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Senators voted 53-45 to make Wheeler the No. 2 official at EPA, just below Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittEPA bans use of pesticide linked to developmental problems in children Science matters: Thankfully, EPA leadership once again agrees Want to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump MORE.
All of the Republicans present voted for Wheeler, along with Democratic Sens. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyRepublicans may regret restricting reproductive rights Sanders traveling to Iowa, Indiana to pitch Biden's spending package Supreme Court battle could wreak havoc with Biden's 2020 agenda MORE (Ind.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampWashington's oldest contact sport: Lobbyists scrum to dilute or kill Democrats' tax bill Progressives prepare to launch counterattack in tax fight Business groups aim to divide Democrats on .5T spending bill MORE (N.D.) and Joe ManchinJoe ManchinPelosi sets Thursday vote on bipartisan infrastructure bill Budget impasses mark a critical turning point in Biden's presidency Democrats urge Biden to go all in with agenda in limbo MORE (W.Va.). Each of the Democrats is running for reelection this year in heavily Republican states.
The vote came amid a wave of controversies involving Pruitt, who is facing calls for his resignation or firing.
Democrats argued that Wheeler could become Pruitt's successor if the administrator is dismissed, and that he has not been properly vetted for that scenario.
“We should know whether Andrew Wheeler is up to the task of helping to right this badly damaged EPA ship, to restore the confidence and have it headed back on the right course,” Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperPlastics industry lashes out at 'regressive' Democratic tax plan Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — EPA finalizing rule cutting HFCs EPA finalizes rule cutting use of potent greenhouse gas used in refrigeration MORE (Del.), the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said on the Senate floor before the Wheeler vote.
“The things we've learned about the EPA over the last two weeks give us a different outlook than when [Mitch] McConnell filed cloture on Andrew Wheeler's nomination just before the Easter recess. And it certainly gives a much different perspective than we had when Andrew Wheeler sat before the Environment and Public Works Committee last year,” he added, referring to the Kentucky Republican who serves as Senate majority leader.
Pruitt has been under fire for spending taxpayer dollars on first-class flights and security for himself, for renting an apartment from an energy lobbyist's wife for just $50 per day he slept there, and for giving raises to two aides after the White House told him not to.
As senators were debating Wheeler’s nomination, Democrats released a list of allegations they got from former Pruitt aide Kevin Chmielewski, including that the EPA paid for bulletproof vests, biometric locks and high-price hotels and that Pruitt picked trip locations based on where he wanted to visit.
Lawmakers also alleged that Pruitt uses four email addresses for EPA business, which Democrats said calls into question whether the EPA has been following Freedom of Information Act standards for searching records.
Republicans were united in support of Wheeler.
“Mr. Wheeler is very well qualified for the position. He spent over 25 years working in environmental policies,” said Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoOvernight Energy & Environment — League of Conservation Voters — Climate summit chief says US needs to 'show progress' on environment Manchin, Barrasso announce bill to revegetate forests after devastating fires Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — EPA finalizing rule cutting HFCs MORE (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeTop Republican: General told senators he opposed Afghanistan withdrawal Austin, Milley to testify on Afghanistan withdrawal The Pentagon budget is already out of control: Some in Congress want to make it worse MORE (R-Okla.), for whom Wheeler used to work, also cheered him.
“The extreme environmentalists were given free rein under the Obama administration for eight years, including writing the EPA’s regulations, and they can't handle the fact that the American people said, ‘enough,’” he said.
“[President] Trump and Scott Pruitt have been delivering relief for the American people and the economy since they've been in office. Andrew Wheeler will be a great help to Administrator Pruitt in continuing to implement President TrumpDonald TrumpCheney says a lot of GOP lawmakers have privately encouraged her fight against Trump Republicans criticizing Afghan refugees face risks DeVos says 'principles have been overtaken by personalities' in GOP MORE's vision of returning the EPA to an agency of the people, subject to the rule of law.”
Democrats’ criticisms of Wheeler extended beyond the Pruitt scandal. They said he is not the right person to fulfill the role.
“This is a selection that continues the Trump administration's essentially complete subservience to the fossil fuel industry in the entire environmental arena,” said Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehousePlastics industry lashes out at 'regressive' Democratic tax plan Democrats draw red lines in spending fight What Republicans should demand in exchange for raising the debt ceiling MORE (D-R.I.)
“There's very little chance that Mr. Wheeler is going to take his public duties seriously as No. 2 at EPA and it's not like at No. 2 at EPA, there's a stopgap that's going to defend us. So this is a really dangerous duo.”
Wheeler is currently co-head of the energy practice at law and lobbying firm Faegre Baker Daniels. He was a lobbyist for energy clients including coal-mining giant Murray Energy Corp. until he undid his registration last year before his nomination.
Previously, Wheeler worked for Inhofe when he chaired the Environment and Public Works Committee. Before that, Wheeler worked at the EPA.
Trump tapped Wheeler for the EPA post in October 2017. He passed through the Environment and Public Works Committee on a party-line vote, after a hearing in which Democrats focused almost entirely on the then-nominee to head the Council on Environmental Quality, Kathleen Hartnett White.
Democrats refused to let Wheeler’s committee vote be held over into the new year, so the committee voted to approve him, along party lines once again, in February.
The EPA’s deputy administrator acts as a chief operating officer and oversees the career employee workforce, among other duties.