After boycotting the same confirmation vote a week earlier, Republican senators agreed Thursday to show up for a committee vote on President Barack Obama’s pick to be the nation’s top air and water quality regulator.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted 10-8 to move along Gina McCarthy’s nomination as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to the full Senate for a vote.
Getting her confirmation recommendation through the committee required at least 10 votes, and Democrats had to drum up all their committee members to push the nomination through. Those members included retiring Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, who’s been ill and unable to attend many Senate votes.
The vote reflected the deep partisan rifts over the direction of the EPA, which monitors air and water quality as well as the use of pesticides and other chemicals.
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Republicans, led by Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, held up the committee vote for several weeks, saying the EPA hadn’t adequately answered questions about McCarthy’s role as a deputy there. Vitter asked McCarthy a record-breaking 653 questions, out of 1,120 from the committee.
Those questions, in addition to queries from other Republicans, might be the most ever asked of an administration nominee facing Senate confirmation. McCarthy’s predecessor, Lisa Jackson, faced 157 questions from the same committee, Democrats said.
During her confirmation hearing, Republican senators criticized McCarthy for her past role at a federal agency that has a heavy regulatory hand, including on the coal industry and climate change policy; Democrats argued that EPA air-quality rules save lives and create the conditions for a healthy environment and a strong economy.
Vitter on Thursday defended his approach, saying Republicans were looking for more transparency about the agency’s practices. They want more internal emails, Vitter said, and the data and economic analysis behind some policy decisions, among other things.
Vitter has been particularly incensed by an agency practice that assigned an alias to Jackson’s internal emails. The agency has said that the alias, based on the name of Jackson’s dog, was used so that Jackson wasn’t overwhelmed with the thousands of messages that came to her public EPA account.
Vitter said that if the EPA continued to be more open, he wouldn’t oppose the full Senate vote on McCarthy’s nomination.
"We’re not asking for this EPA to change its policy on any fundamental EPA issue," Vitter said. "We’re asking for openness and transparency."
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., accused Vitter of heavy-handed partisan tactics, and said she was disappointed that the vote went down along party lines. She noted that for McCarthy’s current role as a deputy administrator, the Senate confirmed her unanimously.
"She knows how to get the job done," Boxer said. "She’s a woman most worthy of a promotion."
McCarthy serves as the agency’s assistant administrator in charge of air and radiation. Previously, she worked as a state environmental regulator for Obama’s 2012 opponent, Mitt Romney, a Republican former governor of Massachusetts. She also worked for a Republican governor in Connecticut.
McCarthy’s supporters have repeatedly pointed to that record. In a statement, Gene Karpinski, the president of the League of Conservation Voters, called McCarthy a "supremely qualified nonpartisan public servant."
Her path to confirmation remains uncertain.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., still has a hold on McCarthy’s nomination in place over questions about a levee project in his state. Any senator may hold up a full vote on a nomination, and in recent weeks, the Obama administration has faced difficulty with several of its nominees. The president’s nominee for labor secretary, Thomas Perez, faces similar delays.