Senate committee approves Pruitt despite boycott by Democrats

On Feb. 2, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee suspended its rules to avoid a requirement that at least two Democrats take part in a committee vote — then voted to approve the nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, President Trump's choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. The nomination now goes to the full Senate for a vote. The date for the vote has yet to be determined.

Only Republicans on the committee voted, as Democrats had boycotted the meeting. The vote was 11-0.

It was the second day in a row that Democrats, who are in the minority, had refused to show up for a scheduled vote on the nomination of Pruitt for the top post at the EPA.

"Elections have consequences," and a new president is entitled to put the people he wants in place, said committee Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., at the Feb. 2 meeting. Barrasso said that the temporary suspension of committee rules — for the duration of that particular meeting — was justified because the committee's Democrats had boycotted the vote on Pruitt for the second day in a row.

The rules were not suspended for long, as the meeting lasted only 10 minutes or so.

"We took this extraordinary step because the minority took the extraordinary step of boycotting," Barrasso said.

"Never before in the history of the EPA has an incoming nominee been boycotted," he thundered. "The minority wants political theater," he said, but the nation needs a leader for the EPA.

The day before, Democrats boycotted the committee meeting where the vote was originally supposed to have taken place. Their absence, and the absence of one of the 11 Republicans on the committee, meant that the committee did not have the quorum required to vote on the nomination.

The committee has 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats, so if the original vote had taken place as scheduled, the panel was expected to approve Pruitt's nomination on a straight party-line vote.

Ranking Democrat had asked for a postponement

The committee's ranking minority member, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, sent a letter to Barrasso early in the week seeking to delay the vote on Pruitt.

Democrats on the committee "are deeply concerned about the lack of thoroughness of Mr. Pruitt's responses to our questions for the record," Carper said in the letter. "I share their concerns. "On their behalf, I ask you to direct Mr. Pruitt to disclose information requested by Democratic members with the same level of transparency that this committee has required of past nominees."

This includes documents that were requested and questions that were not answered, including questions about whether, if confirmed as EPA administrator, Pruitt would recuse himself from agency matters dealing with pending litigation that he initiated, Carper said. "I request that you delay the committee's consideration of Mr. Pruitt's nomination until he provides complete answers our questions," he wrote.

Barrasso responded to Carper's Jan. 30 letter the next day, asserting that the candidate "has demonstrated his qualifications to lead the EPA" and refusing to postpone the Feb. 1 vote. He said the committee's review of Pruitt has been "unparalleled in its scrutiny, thoroughness, and respect for minority rights."

Following the Feb. 2 committee vote to approve Pruitt's nomination, Barrasso said the Democrats' complaints about inadequately answered questions amounted to "a smokescreen."

Pruitt, a Republican, has been at the forefront of lawsuits challenging both the EPA's Clean Power Plan and the agency's "Waters of the United States" rule. His selection is seen as a sign that President Trump is determined to undo the Clean Power Plan, the EPA final rule aimed at curbing power plant carbon dioxide emissions.

The New York Times reported Feb. 2 that a similar scenario — a boycott by Democratic committee members, and Republicans' ensuing decision to suspend committee rules — also played out this week on the Senate Finance Committee as the minority party sought to block the nominations of Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, and Steven T. Mnuchin to head the Treasury Department.