Congress confirms Leavitt’s EPA position

WASHINGTON-The Senate confirmed Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday, filling a four-month vacancy with a lopsided vote that did not reflect the efforts by some Democrats to turn his nomination into a referendum on President Bush’s environmental policies.

By a vote of 88-8, senators backed Bush’s choice of the Utah Republican to head the nation’s lead agency for enforcing environmental rules. Leavitt said he will start the job at EPA on Nov. 6, a day after he resigns as governor. His first task, Leavitt said, will be to earn the trust and confidence of EPA’s 18,000 employees.

“I continue to be very optimistic that I can make a contribution,” he told reporters from Salt Lake City, where he learned about the midmorning vote while working out on exercise equipment at a downtown club. “I accepted this responsibility because I believe the president is committed to substantially more progress on the environment, and doing it in such a way that does not compromise our place in the world competitively.”

The nominee was helped by his three terms as governor, during which he gained a reputation as an affable and competent manager and molded alliances among Senate Democrats who are Westerners or former governors.

Just after the vote, Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., who had once tried to delay the confirmation vote, shared a laugh with and, in a congratulatory gesture, twice patted the shoulder of Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Despite weeks of Democratic efforts to block or delay the vote, including a boycott of one of Inhofe’s committee meetings, only eight voted against Leavitt. One, Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, led the charge against the nominee on the Senate floor.

“Despite his commentary about balance and stewardship, Gov. Leavitt’s record…reveals a disturbing tendency to place shortsighted economic gain of regulated industries above protecting the long-term health of the public,” Lautenberg said.

“The last three years have been the darkest hour of our nation’s commitment to environmental protection since EPA was created,” he said. “This White House has repeatedly foisted its penchant for secrecy and cover-up on the Environmental Protection Agency.”

Inhofe said opponents were “misrepresenting the Bush administration’s progress” on the environment and distorting Leavitt’s record. “We desperately need to have this man in this office,” Inhofe said of Leavitt, who was nominated in August to fill the vacancy resulting from Christie Whitman’s departure in late June.

For their efforts to delay the nomination, Jeffords won the EPA’s promise to provide estimated benefits, not just costs, of his legislative plan to cut power plant pollution, which is competing with a Bush proposal. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., won a White House promise to take additional action over two years to protect New York City residents potentially exposed to harmful World Trade Center rubble.

The vote came after Republicans showed Monday afternoon they could force the issue to a quick conclusion. Clinton and three Democratic presidential contenders in the Senate-Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina-had led the delaying efforts.

Others who voted against Leavitt, all Democrats, were Sens. Barbara Boxer, California; Jon Corzine, New Jersey; Mark Dayton, Minnesota; Richard Durbin, Illinois; Jack Reed, Rhode Island; Jay Rockefeller, West Virginia; and Charles Schumer, New York. Four Democrats didn’t vote: Sens. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Edwards, Lieberman and Kerry.

Leavitt will be replaced as Utah governor by Republican Lt. Gov. Olene Walker.

The Associated Press