The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday advanced the nominations of two controversial Environmental Protection Agency nominees, teeing them up for confirmation votes on the Senate floor.
The committee voted 11-10 along party lines to advance the nominations of Michael Dourson to run the EPA chemicals office, and Bill Wehrum to lead the agency's air office.
Democrats opposed both nominees and said their ties to industry will prevent them from being effective and faithful enforcers of environmental law.
Dourson "is the most troubling nominee I have ever considered in 17 years on this committee," said Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the committee's top Democrat, before the vote.
After the vote, Democrats gave lengthy speeches denouncing Dourson and Wehrum. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., called the committee's approval of Dourson and Wehrum "one of the low points of my entire career."
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., called Dourson the "absolute worst person I can think of to be in charge of chemical safety in this country."
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, meanwhile, commended Republicans for advancing the nominations. The committee also advanced the nominations of Matthew Leopold, President Trump's nominee to be assistant administrator for the Office of General Counsel; and David Ross, chosen to be assistant administrator for the Office of Water.
"I want to thank Chairman John Barrasso and members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for granting our nominees a fair hearing and approving their nominations," Pruitt said. "These top leaders in their fields will bring positive change to EPA's mission to protect human health and the environment. We look forward to a full Senate vote on these highly-qualified leaders."
Wehrum, an energy industry lawyer and former EPA official, would oversee a portfolio dealing with climate change regulations.
The post is widely considered the EPA's second most important job, and Democrats say Wehrum's industry ties would complicate his ability to re-evaluate carbon emissions regulations that Pruitt wants to review, such as the Clean Power Plan. Concerns over his industry connections led to Wehrum being rejected by Congress to serve in the same position in the George W. Bush administration.
Back then, however, nominees needed 60 votes to advance to a confirmation vote in the Senate, and under rules changed by Democrats in 2013, Dourson will only need 50.
Dourson is a toxicologist and University of Cincinnati professor. Democrats criticized him for his ties to the chemical industry, which he would be expected to regulate. He founded a consulting group that represented companies that produced chemicals now under EPA review for their public health risks.
"His record is clear," Carper said of Dourson. "He has sold science to the highest bidder and recommended [safety] standards that are tens, hundreds, even thousands less protective than EPA's own standards."
Some Democrats suggested Republicans had imperiled the ability of the committee to work in a bipartisan fashion by voting for Dourson.
Last year, Congress passed a bipartisan bill that updated the Toxic Substances Control Act, a 1976 law that had made it difficult for regulators to ban or regulate chemicals by requiring the EPA to meet a high burden of proof before taking action.
The new law streamlined the regulatory process, and directed the EPA to review at least 20 high priority chemicals and emphasize the riskiest ones. Democrats say they doubt Dourson will enforce the law as its written.
"On our side, we have become accustomed to nominees [from Republicans] who have massive conflicts of interest, having them overlooked and rammed through on partisan votes," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. "With Dourson, it's a little different because we just worked together in a bipartisan fashion to do something about toxic chemicals. We came to a reasonable, fair and productive result. Today's vote breaches the faith of that result."
The Environment and Public Works Committee last week had delayed the nomination votes of Wehrum and Dourson after some Republicans suggested they may not approve them as retaliation for the Trump administration's plan to weaken the EPA's biofuel mandate.
Those concerns from Midwestern Republicans were resolved because Pruitt assured GOP senators later in the week that he would keep intact the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires a certain amount of biofuels to be blended into the nation's fuel supply.
Democrats on Tuesday demanded information from the EPA about why Dourson is already working in an advisory role at the agency before being confirmed.
"I have never been this troubled in 17 years," Carper said after the vote. "We have not done the right thing. On the nomination of Dourson, we will never give up in opposition to it."