Make-or-break moment for EPA chief Pruitt

Make-or-break moment for EPA chief Pruitt
© Greg Nash

Environmental Protection Agency  (EPA) Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Scientists flee USDA as research agencies move to Kansas City area | Watchdog finds EPA skirted rules to put industry reps on boards | New rule to limit ability to appeal pollution permits Press: Acosta, latest to walk the plank Watchdog finds EPA skirted rules when appointing industry leaders to science boards MORE faces a pivotal moment Thursday at back-to-back congressional panels where he will be grilled over a series of controversies endangering his tenure at the EPA.

Democrats have been chomping at the bit to challenge Pruitt, while Republicans have shown impatience with his negative headlines despite their support for the EPA administrator’s regulatory record.

“It will be a cordial reception, but he has some tough questions to answer,” said Rep. Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenOvernight Energy: EPA expands use of pesticide it considers 'highly toxic' to bees | House passes defense bill with measure targeting 'forever chemicals' | Five things to watch as Barry barrels through the Gulf House passes bill to crack down on toxic 'forever chemicals' Overnight Defense: Woman accusing general of sexual assault willing to testify | Joint Chiefs pick warns against early Afghan withdrawal | Tensions rise after Iran tries to block British tanker MORE (R-Ore.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. 

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The hearings before subpanels of the Energy and Commerce and Appropriations committees are Pruitt’s first in front of Congress since his future at the EPA came into question because of the string of controversies — including reports of a $50-per-night Capitol Hill condo lease from the wife of a prominent energy lobbyist and raises given to EPA aides without White House approval.

Pruitt’s performance could be a make-or-break moment, and the White House and congressional Republicans are among those who will be watching his answers carefully.

“What I’d like to see from the administrator, frankly, is some contrition and admission that maybe he’s gone too far, if he believes that, and maybe a plan for improvement,” said Rep. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerTrump puts hopes for Fed revolution on unconventional candidate Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand Acosta on shaky ground as GOP support wavers MORE (R-N.D.), who has been a close ally to the Trump administration on energy and environmental policy. “I think that if he were to offer something like that, maybe he’d be offered some grace that he currently isn’t enjoying.”

Pruitt’s support at the White House has reportedly waned in the past weeks, with staffers going as far as telling members of Congress not to publicly support Pruitt, according to Bloomberg News. 

The White House on Wednesday did not give Pruitt a resounding vote of confidence, with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying it was “evaluating” concerns raised about Pruitt. “We expect the EPA administrator to answer for them,” she added.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpEsper sidesteps question on whether he aligns more with Mattis or Trump Warren embraces Thiel label: 'Good' As tensions escalate, US must intensify pressure on Iran and the IAEA MORE appears to have been Pruitt’s biggest supporter.

He tweeted earlier this month that Pruitt “is doing a great job.”

“It’s really up to one guy. You know, he plays to an audience of one,” Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeThe 27 Republicans who voted with Democrats to block Trump from taking military action against Iran Rubio asks White House to delay B Pentagon contract over Amazon concerns   Lawmakers concede they might have to pass a dreaded 'CR' MORE (R-Okla.), a member of the Appropriations panel, said of Pruitt’s relationship with Trump.

Cole said Pruitt reached out to him last week for advice on preparing for the hearing.

“He just said, ‘What do you think it’s going to be like?’ I said, ‘It’s going to be rough. And, you know, be ready,’ ” Cole said.

“As long as he’s got the confidence of the president of the United States, he’s going to be all right. He may have a rough ride. But if he were to lose that, then really not much else matters,” Cole told reporters.

Rep. John ShimkusJohn Mondy ShimkusOvernight Energy: Fight over fuel standards intensifies | Democrats grill Trump officials over rule rollback | California official blasts EPA chief over broken talks | Former EPA official says Wheeler lied to Congress California official blasts EPA head over car standard negotiations Democrats grill Trump officials over fuel standard rollback MORE (R-Ill.), who will be leading one of the hearings as chairman of an Energy and Commerce subcommittee, expected Pruitt to face questions both on his controversies and his policies.

“I think he’s done a good job in the policy. I think there’s been a lot of unforced errors that have taken people’s eye off of the policy,” Shimkus said.

Pruitt also reached out to Rep. Ken CalvertKenneth (Ken) Stanton CalvertMORE (R-Calif.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee holding the EPA hearing, for advice going into Thursday. 

Calvert said he told him, “Be prepared.”

“He’s a very capable attorney,” he said. “He’s spent some time in some very confrontational courtrooms in the past. I’m sure he’ll do fine in the hearings.”

Democrats were tight-lipped on Wednesday about their plans.

Rep. Diana DeGetteDiana Louise DeGetteCrucial for Congress to fund life-saving diabetes research Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — White House withdraws controversial rule to eliminate drug rebates | Grassley says deal on drug prices moving 'very soon' | Appeals court declines to halt Trump abortion referral ban Overnight Energy: Top EPA official stepping down amid ethics probe | Critics slam EPA for rolling back union protections | Trump officials open door to controversial Alaska mining project MORE (D-Colo.) offered a one-word expectation: “Fireworks.”

A person familiar with Democrats’ preparations said the lawmakers will try to be “prosecutorial” in their questioning to try to corner Pruitt.

The challenge, the source said, “will be what to elevate” given the “buffet” of controversies surrounding Pruitt.

Pruitt’s prepared remarks for the Energy and Commerce hearing released Wednesday make no mention of any of the scandals, and focus only on his budget request and his priorities at the agency, such as closing Superfund sites and expanding clean drinking water.

But a document obtained by The New York Times on Wednesday shows Pruitt will likely come to the Capitol armed with talking points that mostly aim to shift blame for the scandals to others — namely his chief of staff and security heads.

Pruitt has previously sought to explain away many of the controversies as having been driven by his liberal opponents.

“There are people that have long in this town done business a different way and this agency has been the poster child of it,” he told the Washington Examiner earlier this month. “And so do I think that because we are leading on this agenda that there are some who want to keep that from happening? Absolutely.”

If Pruitt just tries to shift blame on Thursday and does not show some contrition, however, it could backfire.

When he tried to deflect blame during an interview with Fox News’s Ed Henry the same week as the Examiner interview, it blew up in his face.

“President Trump said he would drain the swamp. Is that renting an apartment from the wife of a Washington lobbyist?” Henry asked at one point during the sit-down interview.

“I don’t think that that’s even remotely fair to ask that question,” Pruitt shot back.

Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) said Pruitt should apologize to the American people and try to be transparent.

“What I’d do if I were Pruitt … I’d call a full-blown press conference and say ‘I’m here as long as y’all want to talk,’ ” suggested Kennedy. “ ‘Here’s what I did, here’s why I think it was right, and I’m going to defend myself. Here are the criticisms that I think are fair, here’s what I’m going to do differently.’ ”