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EPA Battle Looms

Self-described green groups are poring over Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt’s (R) environmental record in preparation for highly charged hearings next month when the Senate vets his nomination to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Democrats and environmentalists hope to use the hearings to publicize their dissatisfaction with President Bush’s stewardship of the environment and in turn convince voters in 2004 he does not deserve a second term.

“From our point of view this guy gives every indication of enthusiastically following a terrible set of policies pursued by the Bush administration, and therefore we are going to make it a campaign issue next year,” said Mark Longabaugh, a top official for the League of Conservation Voters. “We clearly are going to research Leavitt’s record. The public has a right to know what his record is.”

The Democrats expected to be the most vocal about Leavitt’s nomination are the nine candidates seeking the party’s presidential nomination, two of whom serve on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Sens. Bob Graham (Fla.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.) are both members of EPW, the panel charged with evaluating Bush’s nominees for the agency. Both men are expected to leave the campaign trail this fall to participate in the hearings, perhaps giving them an inside track to appeal to green voters by taking high-profile stands on Bush’s environmental record.

“Sure, they get access to information the others don’t, but it’s a double-edged sword,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide not affiliated with any of the candidates. “Every move they make can be characterized as politically motivated, and every day they attend hearings is a day they aren’t out shaking hands in Iowa and New Hampshire.”

Last week, Lieberman sent a letter to EPW Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and ranking member Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) telling them he is “concerned that Governor Leavitt has not exhibited a clear dedication to the strong enforcement of existing environmental laws.”

Because of this, Lieberman called on Inhofe and Jeffords to “conduct an exhaustive review of the nominee’s record.”

And a spokeswoman for Graham said the Florida Democrat is also looking “forward to talking to Governor Leavitt about his record.”

“But ultimately the Bush administration’s environmental record is nothing short of abysmal,” said Jill Greenberg, Graham’s spokeswoman.

Other Democrats on the EPW panel, including Sens. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), are also expected to use the hearings to highlight their displeasure with Bush’s environmental policies.

Republicans, though, vow to defend Leavitt and Bush’s environmental record, characterizing the upcoming criticism by Democrats as politically driven.

“We are fully anticipating this is going to be a proxy fight about Bush’s environmental record,” said Mike Catanzaro, a spokesman for Inhofe. “But that is not going to derail this nomination because Mike Leavitt has a solid record on environmental protection.”

Catanzaro said the committee is still working to schedule a date for the first hearing, but added that confirming Leavitt is a top priority for Inhofe.

“As soon as we get back we would like to do this,” Catanzaro said.

Despite the grilling Leavitt is expected to face from Democrats this fall, the Utah governor is likely to be approved by the Senate.

Bush’s decision to nominate Leavitt surprised many observers, who thought Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R), a former Senator, would be the president’s pick to replace former Administrator Christine Todd Whitman. Whitman resigned in May.

“We were well-prepared with research on Dirk Kempthorne,” said Ed Hopkins, director of environmental quality programs for the Sierra Club.

Now Hopkins said his group and others have shifted gears and have begun scrutinizing Leavitt’s record; he expects to present their findings to Senators before the hearings commence.

“We will be doing research over the next couple of weeks and providing that information to members of the Senate committee for use in the confirmation hearings,” Hopkins said.

In addition to contacting green groups in Utah, national environmental organizations are also expected to contact the Utah Democratic Party to request opposition research files it has compiled on Leavitt’s record over the years.

“This man is going have scrutiny like you never thought about before,” predicted Meg Holbrook, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party. “We are happy to help anyone that asks us.”

Unlike the television ad campaigns launched by left-leaning NARAL Pro-Choice America and the right-tilting Committee for Justice over Bush’s judicial nominations, environmental organizations are unlikely to engage in a similar practice to express their opposition to Leavitt’s nomination. Instead, representatives of the groups said they would spend their money on advertisements criticizing Bush on his environmental record next year.

In addition to asking Leavitt pointed questions about his environmental record as Utah governor, Jeffords said he plans to inquire about institutional problems Democrats on the committee claim they have had with the agency ever since Bush took office.

“One area I will explore is how we can work together to ease the backlog of information requests that my committee has had pending with the EPA for far too long,” Jeffords said.

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