WASHINGTON, Feb. 1, 2017 - Democrats slowed down the confirmation of Scott Pruitt to be EPA administrator by boycotting a scheduled vote by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Committee Democrats said Pruitt had not fully answered their questions about potential conflicts of interest and his plans to recuse himself from participation in lawsuits he brought against EPA while Oklahoma attorney general.
Committee rules require a quorum of seven members, including two members of the minority, to be present in order to hold a vote. But they also include an exception allowing measures to be reported to the Senate if “a majority of committee members cast votes in person.”
That would appear to open the door for the committee’s one-vote majority of 10 Republicans to approve Pruitt without any participation by the minority. But there’s a twist: One of the EPW members is attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who did not attend the business meeting.
The committee’s minority comprises nine Democrats and one independent, Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Ranking minority member Tom Carper, D-Del., told reporters later in the day that he wasn’t sure what the rules allow.
The Senate Finance Committee approved two nominees today after suspending their rules requiring a quorum. Republicans on that committee voted 14-0 to approve Steven Mnuchin to be Treasury secretary and Tom Price as the next secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
“Americans deserve an open, transparent confirmation process. Scott Pruitt still needs to provide information about his environmental record,” the EPWDems Twitter account said this morning at about the time the committee was adjourning.
Republicans on the panel, including Chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming, criticized their colleagues for not showing up.
“This amounts to nothing more than political theater at the expense of working on issues that we care about,” Barrasso said. “We cannot afford to have EPA go without an administrator for the foreseeable future.”
At the end of the hearing, Barrasso said he would move Pruitt’s nomination forward “expeditiously.”
Barrasso and other Republicans said Pruitt had answered more than 1,000 questions, both at his lengthy confirmation hearing and in writing in response to questions submitted to him after the hearing.
“Attorney General Pruitt has answered more questions than any other nominee in recent memory,” Barrasso said.
“He’s gone beyond being responsive to the committee,” echoed senator and former EPW chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla.
On Tuesday, ranking minority member Tom Carper of Delaware asked Barrasso to delay the business meeting until Pruitt provided more answers. In a letter, Carper said the Democrats “are deeply concerned about the lack of thoroughness of Mr. Pruitt’s responses to our questions for the record.” (Barrasso’s response is here.)
“My Democratic colleagues and I asked Mr. Pruitt several times for copies of his emails and other correspondence he sent while serving as Oklahoma’s Attorney General,” Carper said in the letter. “For example, Senator (Ben) Cardin (D-Md.) asked Mr. Pruitt to ‘provide all communications you had with representatives of agricultural and other companies regarding water quality litigation between Arkansas and Oklahoma.’
“This was a request to a public official to disclose documents he possesses on a settlement he touted as a success in verbal testimony before the Committee. Mr. Pruitt responded: ‘Such communications can be requested from the Oklahoma Office of the Attorney General through a request made to that office pursuant to the Oklahoma Open Records Act.’ Mr. Pruitt provided this answer 19 times in response to questions several Democrats posed on a variety of matters.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said requests under the Oklahoma Open Records Act can go years before being resolved.
“As Attorney General, Mr. Pruitt has an abysmal record in producing inconvenient documents,” Whitehouse said. One request for more than 3,000 documents “between his office and Koch Industries, Devon Energy, Murray Energy, and other fossil fuel heavyweights” has not been resolved after more than two years.
“Now over a dozen times he has directed senators, who are poised to vote on his nomination, to go to the back of a very long, first-come, never-served line to learn more about his record,” Whitehouse said. “If Mr. Pruitt is willing to sidestep the senators performing their role of providing advice and consent on his nomination, I can hardly imagine how contemptuous he will be when Congress asks for information about changes he makes to the Renewable Fuel Standard, clean air and water protections, or toxics regulations.”
The Democrats want to know whether Pruitt will recuse himself from “agency matters dealing with pending litigation he initiated, or in which he participated, on behalf of the State of Oklahoma,” as Carper put it in his letter to Barrasso. “The committee members should have certainty that Mr. Pruitt would be able to conduct his duties as administrator in a fair and impartial manner without being bound to or entangled in positions he has previously taken as Attorney General.”
In his answers to committee members’ questions, Pruitt said that “as a lawyer, I am bound by the rules of professional conduct not to ‘switch sides’ in any litigation in which I represented the State of Oklahoma, unless my former client gives its informed consent.”
To Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., that would mean Pruitt will “be serving as plaintiff, defendant, judge (and) jury on matters at EPA,” the senator said in a tweet.
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Asked whether Barrasso might move the Pruitt nomination without the Democrats – which he could do by suspending the committee rules – committee spokesman Mike Danylak pointed to Barrasso’s own statement at the business meeting.
“To the members of this committee, I tell you I pledge to move the nomination of Attorney General Scott Pruitt to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, as expeditiously as possible,” Barrasso said.
Danylak also distinguished the Democratic boycott from the GOP members’ boycott of a committee vote in 2013 for Gina McCarthy to be EPA administrator. The committee eventually approved McCarthy, 10-8, on a party-line vote.
“There is a big difference between the incoming administrator for the EPA and later administrators, who already have the agency up and operating,” Danylak said. “That is why there has never been a boycott of an incoming administrator, before today.”