Gina McCarthy Moves Step Closer to Heading EPA

Coral Davenport
National Journal

Gina McCarthy, President Obama's nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, and thus to play a central role in his controversial climate change plan, moved a step closer to Senate confirmation Thursday, as Senators voted 69-31 on a procedural measure clearing the way to the final vote locking her into the job. Senate leadership aides say they expect she'll receive the 60 votes necessary for confirmation, adding that the final vote will likely come later Thursday--although it could be delayed until next week.

If confirmed, McCarthy will oversee the heart of Obama's plan to curb global warming, an issue the President sees as a cornerstone of his legacy--and on which he's come under fierce attack from Republicans and the coal industry. The plan effectively bypasses Congress by using the executive authority of the EPA to roll out new regulations slashing greenhouse-gas pollution from coal-fired power plants.

The plan ensures that EPA will remain a top political target for Republicans, who attacked the agency in 2012 campaign ads as a promulgator of so-called "job-killing regulations," and for waging "War on Coal"--a theme that's likely to reverberate throughout the 2014 midterm elections and possibly into the 2016 presidential campaign.

But despite their objections to the climate change rules and the EPA, many Republicans and industry groups have warmed to McCarthy herself. Lisa Jackson, Obama's first-term EPA leader, was known as a strident environmentalist who sought the strongest possible clean-air regulations on industry. McCarthy, who in the first term was Jackson's top deputy on clean-air and climate issues, developed a reputation as a pragmatic, personable figure who, while committed to enacting the president's climate change agenda, is also willing to listen to industry views--and, in some cases, to ease the conditions of regulations in order to lighten the economic burden on regulated industries.

Before coming to Obama's EPA in 2009, McCarthy spent nearly 30 years working as a health and environmental-protection official in Connecticut and Massachusetts, during which she worked for five governors from both parties—including 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who, as governor of Massachusetts, tasked her with authoring a state climate-change plan.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins said that she will vote for McCarthy's confirmation. "I had an excellent discussion with her back a month or so ago. I have worked with her previously on [earlier clean-air regulations]. Those experiences made me very favorably inclined towards her. I recognized that she would listen to opposing views. I did not find that to be the case with Lisa Jackson."

But McCarthy's work on climate change will keep her in the crosshairs of powerful lawmakers from coal-producing states, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. John Barasso of Wyoming.

"As for Gina McCarthy, I have no doubt she's a well-meaning public servant," McConnell said in a statement. "We had some good conversations when she came to visit my office earlier this year." But he added, "But as the head of the EPA's air division, she's overseen the implementation of numerous job-killing regulations. These regulations, along with others promulgated by the EPA, have had devastating consequences in states like mine. They've helped bring about a depression--depression with a D--in parts of Eastern Kentucky. …. As someone sent here to stand up for the people who elected me, I cannot in good conscience support a nominee who would advance more of the same. Someone who is not willing to stand up to this Administration's war on coal."

In a Senate floor speech Thursday morning, Barasso said, "This administration has actively sought to eliminate the coal industry from the American economy. ... Ms. McCarthy has been Obama's field general in implementing the President's anti-coal policies."

While the EPA can issue climate-change regulations without Congress, Congress can still play a role in the fate of the President's climate policy--Barrasso is spearheading a legislative effort to repeal or slow the climate regulations--a push that will keep the EPA in the political spotlight, and likely gain momentum if Republicans gain control of the Senate in 2014.