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Senators consider Leavitt for EPA chief

WASHINGTON — Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, his nomination to head the Environmental Protection Agency embroiled in the 2004 presidential election campaign, appealed today to the Senate to look at his environmental record in judging his fitness for the job.

"I intend to be a straightforward voice that will lay out the facts and call them as I see them," Leavitt said.

Senate Democrats, many of them friendly to Leavitt as fellow Westerners or former governors, showed support for Leavitt or conspicuously refrained from criticizing him, even as they tried to use his hearing to scrutinize President Bush's environmental record. The hearing ended early in the afternoon, after more than three hours.

"We've got a good man here, but I'd like time ... to examine these issues," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., noting a "very large gap" between Leavitt's bipartisanship with the Western Governors' Association and the Bush administration's inattention to Democrats' environmental concerns.

Democrats peppered Leavitt with questions on administration decisions to ease industries' ability to upgrade facilities without installing the latest air pollution controls, its reversal of a Bush campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide pollution, funding and enforcement of Superfund sites, and EPA's credibility and autonomy given a White House that actively drives environmental policy.

"Many of us are a little concerned about the administration that you're attempting to join, and the policies that it has taken toward the environment," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

Leavitt said he "answered the president's call" to join his administration because he passionately believes in the need for a clean and healthy environment. "It was his commitment that attracted me to this goal," Leavitt said of President Bush. "I won't pull punches with him, but I will tell him, sometimes in private, how I feel."

As an example of his record, Leavitt cited his role in helping improve air quality in the Grand Canyon through a regional commission trying to beat a federal deadline for taking over the task.

"This experience taught me that enforceable national standards can be a catalyst to bring parties together, but national standards work best if participants are allowed to use innovative neighborhood strategies," Leavitt said in testimony prepared for the Senate Environment Public Works Committee.

He also described the state's cleanup of groundwater contamination at the Kennecott Copper Mine, the largest mine-related water reclamation project in U.S. history.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, praised Leavitt's credentials and made a pitch for Bush's environment policies, trying to pre-empt criticism.

"You're going to hear ... President Bush is letting polluters off the hook — absolutely false," Inhofe said.

Utah Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and Robert Bennett introduced Leavitt. "I can personally think of no one better for the job," Hatch said. "He's fair and honest and everybody knows it."

Two senators contending for the Democratic presidential nomination — Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina — each have threatened to use parliamentary devices to prevent Leavitt from taking office, citing their opposition to Bush administration environmental policies. Lieberman and Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., another presidential hopeful, didn't attend the committee hearing because they were campaigning.

Clinton was the first to threaten to block the nomination because of an EPA inspector general's report that found that White House officials persuaded the agency to tone down its assessment of possible health threats from asbestos, soot and PCBs after the World Trade Center collapse.

The hearing's dynamics reflect congressional Democrats' strength on the environment. Asked in an August poll for Newsweek who would do a better job on the environment, 53 percent said Democratic leaders in Congress, 29 percent said Bush.

Only a simple majority on the committee is required to send Leavitt's nomination to the full Senate. With 11 Republicans, eight Democrats and one independent on the panel, there was little doubt he would win the committee's approval. A committee vote is not expected for at least a week, to allow for follow-up questions.

A single senator can put a hold on a nomination, preventing it from being scheduled for a floor vote.