The Senate voted Thursday to confirm Gina McCarthy as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, a job that will make her a central figure in President Obama's historic but controversial plan to fight global warming.
Senators voted 59-40 to confirm the new EPA chief, who was one of a handful of nominees to get voted on this week, including Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, who was confirmed in a 54-46 vote just hours before McCarthy.
McCarthy has spent the past four years as EPA's assistant administrator of air and radiation, writing and implementing a slew of major clean-air and climate-change rules requiring that coal-fired power plants—the nation's largest contributor of greenhouse gases that cause climate change—slash their carbon pollution.
As she steps up to lead the environmental agency, she has her work cut out for her. Obama has declared that he intends to make climate change a signature issue in his second term. In a passionate June address described by environmental groups as the most important speech given by a president in history on the environment, Obama said that in the absence of action by Congress on climate change, he will use the executive authority of EPA to roll out aggressive new climate-change regulations.
At the heart of Obama's plan is for EPA to propose a rule regulating carbon pollution from new coal plants by Sept. 30 of this year, and to propose a rule regulating carbon from existing coal plants by June 1, 2014, finalizing that rule by June 2015. The plan ensures that EPA will remain a top political target for Republicans—after Obama's speech, the GOP and the coal industry reignited their 2012 campaign charge that the president and EPA are waging a "war on coal"—a theme that's likely to reverberate throughout the 2014 midterm elections and possibly into the 2016 presidential campaign.
McCarthy will have to craft and roll out rules that will be immediately subject to a barrage of legal and political pushback—and which will also pave the way for the United States to become a global leader on fighting climate change, while fundamentally shifting the U.S. energy industry.
In her April confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, McCarthy said, "As the president made clear, we must take steps to combat climate change. This is one of the greatest challenges of our generation and our great obligation to future generations. I am convinced that those steps can and must be pursued with common sense."
Republicans have delayed McCarthy's confirmation for more than 130 days, leaving EPA without an administrator for the longest period in its history. During that time, they also submitted more than 1,000 questions for her to answer, a number Democrats decried as unprecedented.
Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said of the delay over McCarthy's confirmation, "It isn't about her, it's about the fact that they don't like the Environmental Protection Agency even though it was created by a Republican president named Richard Nixon. And then there's the issue of climate change; … the administrator for the EPA will be carrying out the President's vision of taking that carbon pollution out of the air, and she'll be good at it."
Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, the ranking Republican on the Senate Environment panel, said, "It's a very important nomination to a very important agency that's been taking dramatic action in the last four years. Gina has been at the center of that dramatic and draconian action. In a methodical march against affordable and reliable energy, EPA has drafted rules that raise energy prices and create energy scarity; ... this agency overreach has been historic, and she's been at the very heart of many of these matters as head of the clean-air program."
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 lessen 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 of Maine said before the vote that she planned to 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."
In a phone call with reporters earlier this week, Republican Christine Todd Whitman, who headed EPA during the George W. Bush administration and is the former governor of New Jersey, said, "The thing about Gina that has always impressed me is her work in the office on air; she's been able to bridge those gaps. She's been able to work at the local level, at the state level, and clearly, at the federal level to get some meaningful reform through. I think Gina is uniquely qualified for the job of EPA administrator."
But McCarthy's work on climate change will keep her in the crosshairs of powerful lawmakers from coal-producing states, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.
"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, Barrasso 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 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 EPA in the political spotlight, and likely gain momentum if Republicans gain control of the Senate in 2014.