Democratic members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee were noticeably absent from a business meeting held Feb. 1 to consider Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt's nomination to lead the U.S. EPA.
Republican members of the committee expressed their frustration at their colleagues' decision to boycott the meeting, which would have moved the nominee closer to being confirmed by the whole Senate.
"I believe no one is served, no environmental goal is achieved, by acting in this obstructionist way," committee Chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming said.
Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi said the Democrats were not boycotting based on the qualifications of the nominee, but rather because they are disappointed that they lost the election in November 2016.
"You're making yourselves look bad," Wicker said. He called the Democrats' actions "governing by temper tantrum."
"It's not like they're busy," Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska said, noting that Democrats were outside the hearing room prior to the start of the meeting. "This is simply a senatorial temper tantrum."
Democrats announced they were unsatisfied with Pruitt's answers to questions submitted for the record Jan. 26, asking for more time for the nominee to respond. Ranking Member Thomas Carper of Delaware said in a Feb. 1 statement that the American public has a right to the basic information requested by Democrats.
"'Go FOIA yourself' is not a sufficient response to the Democrats of the [EPW] committee who are asking for critical information on Scott Pruitt's environmental record as attorney general of Oklahoma," Carper said. "We cannot fully judge Mr. Pruitt's positions nor assess potential conflicts of interests that would impact his service at the EPA without responses to our questions for the record."
Viewing the business meeting were as many as 20 members of the Moms Clean Air Force, who also attended Pruitt's nomination hearing Jan. 18. Speaking directly to them, Sullivan said, "As all the parents here know, temper tantrums waste a lot of energy, but they don't accomplish anything."
Moms Clean Air Force Field Director Gretchen Dahlkemper of Philadelphia said the American people deserve to hear real answers from the EPA nominee about critical issues he will face should he be confirmed.
"I felt like this was a temper tantrum," Dahlkemper said, referring to the Republican's statements at the meeting.
Dahlkemper expressed her disappointment that Pruitt was unable to answer a question posed by Democrats at the nomination hearing on what is a safe level of lead in drinking water. She is also concerned that Pruitt did not adequately address the dangers of mercury poisoning for pregnant women and their unborn children, as well as the nominee's connections to fossil fuel interests.
"I feel as a parent that he is unqualified as he continues to put profits of the biggest polluters ahead of the health of my children," Dahlkemper said. "I agree with the Democrats for not coming to vote to move this to the Senate floor until those answers are clear for the American public. We deserve to know."
A number of the Republican senators in attendance noted that Pruitt was asked over 1,200 questions, more than any other previous administrator candidate. The previous three administrators that were appointed as a president's first nominee certainly faced fewer questions than Pruitt has, but the Republican members of the EPW committee offered a similarly grueling welcome to Gina McCarthy in 2013, who answered as many as 1,100 questions when she was chosen by President Barack Obama to replace Lisa Jackson at the helm of the EPA.
"I thought it was interesting that they continued to say that the last three administrators were confirmed very quickly, when that is not the case," Dahlkemper said. She called Republicans' insistence that Pruitt has faced a tougher confirmation hearing than any of the previous nominees "a little bit of hypocrisy."
Responding to questions from reporters after the meeting, Barrasso denied that he was acting hypocritically and said Pruitt cannot be compared to McCarthy because the latter was not confirmed as the new president's first nominee.
"Let's talk about apples to apples. New president of the United States, I believe [he] should have his cabinet in place," Barrasso said.
The meeting lasted less than an hour, with each attending Republican member speaking out against their Democratic colleagues' actions. Barrasso ended it by calling the committee into recess until further notice.
Frank Maisano, of Bracewell LLC's Policy Resolution Group, whose clients include utility, oil, gas and renewable energy companies, does not think that recess will last long. Earlier in the morning, Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee, which is responsible for considering the president's nominees for Treasury and Department of Health and Human Services, managed to push through the nominations of Steven Mnuchin and Tom Price after a last-minute rule change.
Typically, at least one member of the opposition must be in the room for a vote to occur, but the finance committee chairman suspended that rule and Republicans were able to move Mnuchin and Price on to the Senate floor for a full vote.
Maisano thinks the EPW Republicans could take a similar approach to push Pruitt's nomination for a full Senate vote. Democrats' actions are only succeeding in delaying Pruitt's arrival at the EPA, which has been essentially rudderless since President Donald Trump was inaugurated, Maisano said. He noted news reports of disorganization at the agency and leadership confusion that have reportedly been leaked from staff inside the agency.
Maisano would like to see Pruitt approved so that he can take over and get the agency's "ducks in a row."