Democratic lawmakers from around the country aren't backing off their support of the Environmental Protection Agency, even after a series of high-profile blunders has caused the agency to become one of the most criticized agencies in Washington.
Republican lawmakers frequently rip the agency and its regulations, and high-ranking GOP lawmakers have called on Administrator Gina McCarthy to resign.
Yet Democrats reliably have the EPA's back. Democratic strategists say that's because sticking to that partisan position won't hurt them in November since their voters expect them to back strong environmental protection policies. In fact, turning against the EPA could hurt them for the same reason.
Democratic lawmakers told the Washington Examiner they might have disagreements with the EPA and McCarthy, but for the most part they support her leadership and the agency at large.
Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, serves the eastern portion of the Houston area, one of the hotbeds of the oil industry. As the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Energy and Power Subcommittee, Green is well aware of the controversies over the agency's Clean Power Plan rules — the stricter ozone standards that could put many cities out of compliance with federal regulations — the toxic spill into the Animas River in Colorado and the agency's failure to act on the lead water crisis in Flint, Mich.
However, Green's thoughts on McCarthy and the EPA seem to reflect how many Democrats feel: Mistakes have been made, but, overall, she's doing a good job.
"I've worked with her over the years because of my energy work. She never agreed with me all the time, but we can work things out in my area of the oil and gas refinery industry," said Green, who has handily won or run unopposed in his eight re-election campaigns.
"She was in Houston in the last week of February. She spoke to oil and gas conferences. She was there that day at the International Oil and Gas Conference," Green added. "From the Republican side, obviously they disagree with her more than I would, but I think there's a great respect for her because she's willing to sit down and work with you, and that's all I ask from an agency."
With Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress since the 2014 midterm elections, the EPA has been under siege, with McCarthy making frequent trips to Capitol Hill to hear complaints about its various regulations.
The Clean Power Plan regulating carbon emissions from new and existing power plants, the Waters of the United States Rule and the Renewable Fuel Standard have drawn outrage from lawmakers in the last year. In addition, the EPA has had high-profile failures in dealing with crises in Colorado and Michigan.
In August 2015, EPA contractors caused a blowout while cleaning up an abandoned mine, pouring millions of gallons of toxic materials into the Animas River and turned it yellow through Colorado and into New Mexico and Utah.
Months later in Flint, it was revealed that the regional EPA office didn't tell the public about extremely high levels of lead in the water of some homes despite the protests of one of its researchers who was working with a local resident. A state report found regulators in Michigan were responsible for the crisis, but the EPA has nonetheless drawn flack from Congress for its complicity in the contamination.
Despite these mistakes and controversial regulations, Democrats continue to stick by the EPA. Strategists point to polling as an explanation why.
The EPA had a favorable rating of 51 percent and an unfavorable rating of 38 percent in a November Pew Research poll, putting it in the bottom half of the 17 federal agencies the public was asked to rate. However, the EPA was still more popular than the Supreme Court, Congress and the Justice Department.
Other polls show that most voters want the government to take action on fighting climate change, which many scientists believe is caused by the burning of fossil fuels and the subsequent release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The EPA is synonymous with taking action to curb the emissions, and the public continues to be in favor of doing so, polls show.
Environmental issues are also unlikely to play a major rule in November's election, experts say. Many voters who feel strongly about the environment have already decided how they will vote, and topics such as the economy and national security are far more likely to sway voters.
Doug Thornell, managing director with SKDKnickerbocker, said Democrats don't have to reconsider their longstanding support for the EPA because their voters have a favorable view of the agency. In fact, reconsidering that support could end up hurting them at the ballot box.
"Defending the environment is core to the Democratic Party. Voters always think something's up if you're doing something that's not in keeping with the DNA of who you are," Thornell said. "So I don't think it would be a smart move to distance yourself from an agency whose purpose is to protect the environment and keep our water and air clean."
The nature of redistricting means many congressional districts are solidly blue or solidly red, said veteran Demcocratic strategist Joe Trippi.
Many districts, such as coal-country states such as Kentucky and West Virginia, as well as western states like Wyoming and Montana, that are the most affected by EPA regulations are solidly Republican. It's unlikely any Democrat, even if they came out firing against the environmental regulators in Washington, could make too much headway in those districts.
One of the exceptions is Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat. Manchin, who is up for re-election in 2018, takes a hardline stance against McCarthy and the EPA. A former governor of West Virginia who moved to the Senate in 2010, Manchin said McCarthy has been loathe to work with fossil-fuel interests in coal states and has criticized her in the past for never visiting West Virginia when considering the Clean Power Plan.
However, much of the Democratic base is more urban, distanced from the economic impact of regulation and more hawkish on fighting climate change. Voters in those reliably Democratic districts want their lawmakers to support the EPA. Doing so in the face of immense Republican opposition won't threaten their seats.
"Voters that are sensitive in response to environmental policy or climate change, that umbrella, made a decision and figured out who they're for a long time ago," Trippi said. "There may be some differences in these primaries that get stressed, but when it gets to the general election, if you're someone who sees the Democrats as pro-environment, that's why you're voting."
Those factors mean it doesn't take much for Democrats to get in line behind the EPA.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., says he's not facing pressure from back home to back off his stance supporting the EPA.
"I haven't had a problem defending her at all," Durbin said.
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., is one of the EPA's staunchest defenders in Congress, and said the various attacks from Republicans haven't made him reconsider his belief in McCarthy.
"I think she is going to go down in history as a historically great EPA administrator," Markey said. "The way she has constructed the Clean Power Plan is going to ultimately be the model that gets the rest of the world to a position where they too will reduce the greenhouse gases in their country."
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said the EPA does a lot of good, and while it may not be perfect, he thinks it serves the public well.
Ellison is among the Democrats who visited Flint in March after the water became contaminated with lead from old pipes. He said it's important for Democracts to stand by the agency since congressional Republicans, who generally want to do away with the EPA, are all too happy to blame it when something goes wrong.
"Gina McCarthy is an excellent administrator, and I think conservative folks don't want business to be held accountable, because it does cost money to internalize your costs when it comes to pollution," he said.
Some Democrats have even pointed to the considerable Republican opposition to the EPA as reason enough to support the agency.
Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., even takes issue with calling the Animas River spill and the lead water contamination in Flint as "EPA scandals." He said that's merely a Republican talking point.
"There should be broad accountability, and I think you'll find me and any other Democrats ready to hold EPA accountable when it's appropriate," Huffman said. "The answers to that inquiry, though, might not be what our Republican colleagues want to hear.
"Maybe the EPA needs more of a budget and more staff and a more proactive role in guaranteeing drinking water safety, which is not where I think they're headed when they start trying to crucify the EPA and shift the blame to them."
However, support for environmental protections doesn't mean all Democrats are afraid to criticize the EPA.
Some, such as Manchin, have little to no choice. Coal-state Democrats like Manchin might be the most under threat politically from the EPA's effect on constituents because of the Democrats' traditional reliance on union support to rally voters. In states like West Virginia, union support means backing coal miners.
The agency has issued regulations that Manchin said are making it "almost impossible" for West Virginia coal miners to survive.
"I don't think that Gina was basically being fair in looking at the total energy policy for the United States of America and making sure that she understood the need that we have for the fossil fuels that we're using and how we can use them in a cleaner fashion," Manchin said.
Other Democrats also are willing to be critical of the EPA when they think it's necessary.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., made headlines when she appeared to call for McCarthy to resign in a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in March. A spokesman for her office said her statement was taken out of context and she does not believe McCarthy should step down, but Duckworth was happy to tell McCarthy she had a problem with how the EPA has handled the situation in Flint.
Duckworth, who is up for re-election in November, said the EPA "failed in its duty" to protect the city. Her questioning of McCarthy was tough and contentious, with the Illinois Democrat repeatedly calling out McCarthy for seemingly not answering her questions.
"I am not on your side in this. I am certainly not on the governor's side. I'm not on your side," she said, referring to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who was sitting next to McCarthy.
Other Democrats have spoken against the EPA's regulatory practices during congressional hearings.
Earlier this year, in a meeting of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Tim Waltz, D-Minn., told McCarthy he doesn't think the EPA has "regulatory humility." Instead, farmers in his district feel like they're being slammed by new rule after new rule that they aren't consulted on, Waltz said.
"There's a bit of a bunker mentality of 'these things keep coming down and [they're] not asking us,'" he said.
For the increasingly rare Democrats from coal states, such as Manchin, criticism and distancing from the EPA is sometimes the only viable position to take.
Trippi said supporting the EPA in a coal state is tricky due to the immense amount of opposition to coal regulations in those states. Many coal miners blame the EPA for causing the catastrophic downturn in the industry during the last few years, while the reality is that a combination of regulations and the natural gas boom is to blame for the collapse in the industry.
In those states, the EPA often gets roped into a larger debate about the economy and jobs, Trippi said.
"If you're in a district or in a coal state where it might have a direct impact on industry and jobs, it's raised as an issue and will be a major fighting point of contention," he said.