The Senate on Thursday confirmed President Obama’s nominee to lead the Energy Department, Ernest Moniz, by a vote of 97-0. On the upper chamber’s plate now are two considerably more controversial nominees whose confirmation votes—if they come at all—surely won’t be unanimous.
After Republicans delayed action in two separate committees, Obama’s nominees to head the Environmental Protection Agency and the Labor Department are now awaiting confirmation by the full Senate.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted along party lines to confirm Gina McCarthy as EPA administrator. The vote came a week after Republicans on the committee boycotted the originally scheduled vote because they said McCarthy, who is currently an assistant administrator at EPA, wasn’t being responsive enough to their questions about what Republicans say is the agency’s lack of transparency.
Environment and Public Works ranking member David Vitter, R-La., said he decided to attend the panel’s Thursday vote because McCarthy had taken “significant” steps to respond to his concerns. But he added that McCarthy must continue to make “major” progress in order for him to support her confirmation.
“Should major additional progress be made in all of the five [transparency] categories over the next two weeks, I will strongly support handling the McCarthy nomination on the Senate floor without a cloture vote or any 60-vote threshold,” Vitter said. “Should all of our requests in the five categories be granted, I will support the McCarthy nomination.”
Putting aside Vitter’s ongoing concerns, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is continuing a hold he placed on McCarthy in mid-March, just days after Obama announced his intent to nominate her. Blunt’s concern doesn’t involve McCarthy at all and instead centers on the government’s environmental review of a flood infrastructure project in Missouri. EPA reached out to Blunt on Thursday to schedule a meeting with him.
“I’m glad Gina McCarthy has finally reached out, and I look forward to speaking with her,” Blunt said in a statement Thursday. “I will continue my hold on her nomination until the government stops arguing with the government.” He was referring to disagreements among EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Fish and Wildlife Service over the flood project.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., held up Moniz’s nomination for about three weeks because of a dispute also unrelated to the nominee himself. Late last week Graham released his hold, but he has said he intends to block other nominations because of his concern that the Energy Department decided to cut funding and delay a nuclear-waste project in his state. Whether the administration can persuade Blunt to relent on his hold of McCarthy remains to be seen, but there is an immediate precedent for such a move.
Because the concerns by most Republicans, including Blunt and Vitter, do not center on McCarthy herself, the full Senate is likely to confirm her, albeit much more along party lines than Moniz’s somewhat rare unanimous vote. After all, EPA is still one of the GOP’s biggest political targets.
The path to confirmation of Thomas Perez, Obama’s pick to be secretary of Labor, is a potentially more difficult one for Senate Democrats and the White House. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee voted 12-10, along party lines, to approve Perez’s confirmation, but only after a delay a week earlier. Currently, Perez leads the Justice Department’s civil-rights division, and Republicans have taken issue with decisions made there under his leadership.
“He is a committed ideologue who appears willing, quite frankly, to say or do anything to achieve his ideological ends,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement last week. “His willingness, time and again, to bend or ignore the law and to misstate the facts in order to advance his far-left ideology lead me and others to conclude that he’d continue to do so if he were confirmed to another, and much more consequential, position of public trust.”
With criticism swirling about the administration’s handling of a series of controversies—including the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservative groups, the Justice Department seizing Associated Press phone records, and the ongoing Benghazi investigation—Republicans could feel the need to scrutinize further the pending nominees whose career backgrounds even suggest ideological tilts. That puts Perez at a disadvantage that McCarthy, well-liked by even those who don’t like EPA, doesn’t have to contend with.