WASHINGTON — As they took political shots at him Tuesday, senators repeatedly asked why on earth Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt wants to head the Environmental Protection Agency — a job where criticism never stops.
"The answer is simple. I do so because I passionately believe that this nation deserves to have a clean, safe and healthy environment. I also believe that the United States can increase the velocity of our environmental progress, and we can do it without compromising our competitive position in the world," Leavitt said.
However, Leavitt's confirmation hearing before the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee made clear that Democrats will try to keep his nomination on hold — maybe indefinitely — as President Bush nears the final year of his term.
The committee is scheduled to vote on Leavitt's nomination next Wednesday and then possibly forward it to the full Senate. However, Democrats warned that could be delayed if Leavitt is unable to respond in writing by then to numerous questions they are sending to him.
The threats of delay were not because Senate Democrats dislike or distrust Leavitt, whose skills won wide praise Tuesday. It is because some seek to hold his nomination hostage in exchange for explanations they want from Bush, or to protest the president's actions.
Three senators said they are still proceeding for now with "holds" on Leavitt's nomination, which is a vow to filibuster, or prolong the debate, if it comes up on the Senate floor. Stopping such endless debate requires a three-fifths majority. Leaders often avoid bringing up nominations facing holds to avoid tying up the floor.
Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said they will continue a hold on Leavitt until they hear why the EPA announced that dust after the 9/11 attacks was safe when data did not show that. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., placed a hold seeking a study on how Bush policies may be hurting the environment.
And Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he is also considering a hold to protest Bush blocking the nomination of a Reid adviser to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Leavitt took the political maneuvering in stride. "Now that has concluded, I will go back and give my best as governor. If the Senate confirms me, I'll give my best as administrator of the EPA," he said.
Meanwhile, Republicans blasted Democrats for the holds — and for announcing them even before Leavitt had his hearing. "I hope senators will not engage in political blackmail and will instead provide him the up-or-down vote the president's nominees deserve," said Sen. John Cornyn, D-Texas.
Amid demands that Leavitt respond in writing to questions before Wednesday, chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., griped that Lieberman has criticized Leavitt for not responding in writing earlier to questions that Democrats sent him before the hearing. But he said Lieberman chose not to meet privately with Leavitt to discuss such issues and skipped the hearing Tuesday to raise money for his presidential race. "This is more important," Inhofe said.
In responding to questions Tuesday, Leavitt told the Senate he hopes to form innovative environmental solutions by bringing together battling sides to a productive middle ground, which he said he has done many times in Utah and the West on issues from cleaning up polluted Kennecott groundwater to reducing haze at the Grand Canyon.
"I view myself as a problem-solver by nature," he said. "I have had substantial experience in dealing with large, complex environmental issues. I have found through experience that the solutions to those problems are found in the productive middle. Rarely are they found at the extremes."
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., questioned if Leavitt could pull off such collaboration — charging that the Bush administration tends to avoid consultation with critics.
Leavitt said that in his conversations with Bush, "I made clear to him and he made clear to me that our mutual goal was clean air, pure water, better-cared-for land and a healthy environment. . . . It was his commitment that attracted me to this role."
When asked if he would stand up to the president for the environment, Leavitt said, "The president will always know where I stand. He may hear it many times publicly, sometimes privately. . . . He'll know what I believe to be the facts are, what the best science is, and what people at the EPA believe."
Most senators used their time to attack or defend Bush environmental policies in general. Those questions that did come focused mostly on issues of importance to their home states, such as progress on cleaning waste sites in Oklahoma or Montana.
When Clinton asked why the White House seemed to make the EPA back away from warnings that dust after 9/11 in New York City was toxic, Leavitt said he did not know — but vowed in the future to publicly share any information he has important to safety.
Clinton said afterward she was not yet lifting her hold placed because of that issue. Leavitt said, "That's really between Senator Clinton and the White House."
Leavitt faced only one question critical of his own environmental record, when Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., wanted a written response to allegations that the state fired employees who investigated the spread of whirling disease by fish operations his family owned.
Environmental groups, some of which had hoped earlier that the hearing would focused on Leavitt's environmental legacy in Utah, held a press conference after the hearing to blast him. Several also wore buttons to the hearing that said, "The Environment, Love It or Leavitt."
They claimed Leavitt would simply rubber stamp the Bush
administration's "anti-environmental policies."
"After a careful review of his public record on environmental matters, it is clear that Gov. Leavitt is likely to try to weaken the laws that protect our water, air and the public's health," Buck Parker, executive director of Earthjustice, said.
Larry Young, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said, "Gov. Leavitt is a nice guy. That, along with his capacity to talk like a moderate while undercutting genuine environmental protections that serve the public interest seem to be his most important qualifications for serving on the Bush administration's environmental team."
Also on Tuesday evening, several House Democrats led by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., spoke on the House floor against Leavitt's nomination.
Such criticism was countered by two former Democratic governors — Parris Glendening of Maryland and Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. — who sent the committee letters praising Leavitt as bipartisan and a friend of the environment.
The attacks inside and outside the hearing room didn't seem to surprise Leavitt.
"I don't have any illusions that it is an easy job," he said.