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Washington Week: Congress moves on key energy nominees

Congressional lawmakers will size up President Donald Trump's nominees for several key energy posts and hold their first hearing on the administration's fiscal 2018 budget request for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency the week of June 12.

The White House has recently made some long-awaited progress on crucial nominees for the energy sector. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on June 6 advanced Trump's two picks for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as well as his nominees for deputy secretary of the U.S. departments of Energy and Interior. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not scheduled a full Senate vote on those nominees, but FBR analysts recently said the nominees are on track to be confirmed by July.

In the meantime, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing June 13 on nominees for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission along with Trump's pick for EPA Assistant Administrator of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

Trump has lagged other recent presidents in filling cabinet and agency posts. As of June 9, only 40 key administration positions requiring U.S. Senate approval had been confirmed, according to research by The Washington Post and Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit good-governance organization. In comparison, by May 20 of his first year in office, former President Barack Obama had 130 nominees confirmed compared with 60 for George W. Bush, 101 for Bill Clinton and 94 for George H.W. Bush.

Trump and top Republicans in Congress have blamed the delays on Democratic obstruction, but critics have pointed out that, as of June 9, the president had yet to name nominees for 426 of 558 key positions, well behind his predecessors. The hiring lag could slow Trump's agenda of rolling back federal energy regulations and potentially replacing them with new, less stringent ones. Among other positions, the EPA has yet to nominate an assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, the official who will oversee EPA's review of its Clean Power Plan for reducing electric utilities' carbon emissions.

The EPA is also still awaiting a nominee for assistant administrator as the agency's leader, Scott Pruitt, prepares to face a different test before Congress this week. Pruitt will appear before a House Appropriations subcommittee June 15 to defend the EPA's budget request for fiscal 2018, which is a controversial proposal that includes a 31% cut to agency spending.

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote June 12 on several noncontroversial energy bills, including a proposal to exempt utilities from having to obtain FERC consent for mergers and acquisitions unless the transaction exceeds $10 million.

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