Many Republicans said they personally know and respect acting EPA chief Andrew Wheeler, a longtime Senate aide on the Environment and Public Works Committee and lobbyist. | Alex Edelman/AP Images
Senate Republicans are in no hurry to tackle a bruising confirmation fight to permanently replace Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Nearly a dozen GOP senators said this week that they are comfortable with acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s ability to run the agency indefinitely. The Senate’s schedule ahead of November’s midterm elections is expected to be dominated by annual spending bills and the fight to confirm President Donald Trump’s new Supreme Court nominee, leaving Republicans with little appetite to worry about replacing the scandal-scarred Pruitt this year. Story Continued Below
“We have a lot of confirmation business and it’d be best not to take up the schedule with yet another confirmation,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) told POLITICO.
Many Republicans said they personally know and respect Wheeler, a longtime Senate aide on the Environment and Public Works Committee and lobbyist. Several, including Sens. Mike Rounds (S.D.), Dan Sullivan (Alaska) and Cory Gardner (Colo.), indicated the longtime Washington operator might be a good candidate to replace Pruitt permanently.
“I’ve known Andy Wheeler for a number of years,” Gardner told POLITICO. “I think he’ll probably be there, in whatever capacity, as long as he wants to be.”
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Wheeler cleared the Senate just months ago when three Democrats joined with Republicans in backing his nomination. The chamber lies closely divided at effectively 50-49 with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) battling cancer, leaving Republicans with the slimmest of margins to confirm an unfamiliar Pruitt replacement.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) predicted the confirmation battle over the next EPA chief would be “bumpy.”
“I think [Wheeler] will be a competent acting administrator, but I don’t know what the president’s plans are in terms of nominating somebody else,” Cornyn said.
An additional wrinkle for the GOP may lie in the bloc of corn-state Republicans still smarting over Pruitt’s handling of the federal ethanol mandate. At least three of them — Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Joni Ernst (Iowa) and Rounds — said they were pushing for a meeting in the near future to discuss the matter with Wheeler.
A Senate Republican aide said they’d reached out to the agency but didn’t see anything happening “for a bit until things get settled over there.” In the meantime, Grassley said his colleagues should be patient.
“The Senate shouldn’t rush to confirm a replacement for Pruitt until we more fully understand the damage done to the RFS by Pruitt and what can be done to make it right,” Grassley said in a Tuesday call with reporters. “I think we ought to wait a while. Let things cool down. See the lay of the land before we fill that position.”
Ernst agreed: “I’m not looking for a permanent replacement right now,” she told POLITICO.
In general, acting officials can serve no more than 210 days from the date of a vacancy under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, according to a Congressional Research Service report posted online by the Federation of American Scientists. Pruitt’s resignation, effective July 6, would make the end of that period Feb. 1, 2019.
However, under a 2017 Supreme Court decision, Wheeler could not continue to serve as acting administrator if Trump nominated him as a permanent replacement for Pruitt. EPA did not respond to request for comment on how long Wheeler could serve as acting administrator.
Not all Republicans want to wait, with some pointing to the canceled August recess period as opening additional floor time to consider a new nominee.
“He’s the acting director and we need a permanent person in that spot,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said. “We’re here in August. Let’s keep going.”
The top Democrat on EPW, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), said he’d already spoken by phone with Wheeler and hoped he would usher in a tone shift at the agency. He was also wary of the type of nominee Trump might select to replace Pruitt.
“I know a lot of people who have great misgivings about Andrew Wheeler even as the acting, much less as the administrator, but I’m afraid this president could do a whole lot worse,” he told reporters. “As a former EPA staffer, he’s intent on making sure people feel respected and not disrespected.”
Eric Wolff contributed to this report.
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