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US Senate confirms White House official to Kavanaugh's former court seat

The U.S. Senate on March 13 confirmed White House official Neomi Rao to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a powerful judicial body that hears most of the legal challenges to major federal energy and environmental policies.

Rao, who oversaw President Donald Trump's deregulatory agenda as head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, was nominated in November 2018 to fill the seat vacated by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The 53-46 Congressional vote split along party lines, with Rao receiving zero Democratic votes.

As the Trump administration's top regulatory official, Rao reviewed proposals by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to repeal and replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, ease restrictions on new coal-fired power plants, and freeze federal fuel economy standards for cars and light-duty trucks. Rao also signed off on a proposal titled "Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science" that critics argue would prevent the EPA from using the best available science in the rulemaking process.

Environmental groups and blue states are poised to challenge those regulations in the D.C. Circuit after they are finalized.

During her confirmation hearing, Rao said she would follow the precedent set by other D.C. Circuit judges who were confirmed after serving in the executive branch and recuse herself on a "case-by-case manner."

After calling climate change "nothing more than a major environmental boogeyman" as a college student, Rao told senators during her confirmation hearing, "My understanding is that human activity does contribute to climate change."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky praised Rao in the run-up to the vote. "This nominee is yet another of the president's excellent choices to serve as a federal judge," he said March 13.

Rao's confirmation is not expected to shift the ideological makeup of the D.C. Circuit, which former President Barack Obama left what is considered to be a 7-4 liberal majority among active judges.