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Candidates Skip Key EPA Hearing

Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) is expected to miss Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt’s (R) nomination hearing today to become the next Environmental Protection Agency administrator, citing a previously scheduled meeting with the League of Conservation Voters to discuss his presidential campaign.

Another presidential hopeful, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), will also miss the hearing, as he campaigns on behalf of embattled California Gov. Gray Davis (D), who is facing a recall election.

Both Senators have been sharp critics of President Bush’s stewardship of the environment and serve as senior members on the Environment and Public Works Committee — the panel charged with vetting Bush’s EPA nominations.

“We have a scheduling problem and are not expecting him to be there,” said Paul Anderson, deputy chief of staff in Graham’s Senate office.

Anderson said Graham was scheduled to return to Washington at noon after spending Monday in Florida, and had checked into taking an earlier flight but was unsuccessful.

“He was working with scheduling to do its best to have him here, but it is just that he has these commitments in Florida today and cannot get an earlier flight at this stage,”Anderson said Monday. “But we are doing everything we can to have his questions added to the record and his statement introduced tomorrow.”

The Florida Democrat’s meeting with the LCV is scheduled to occur soon after he arrives in Washington. Leavitt’s nomination hearing is expected to begin sometime after 9 a.m. today, after being rescheduled last week due to Hurricane Isabel.

Lieberman, who has vowed to filibuster Leavitt’s nomination, is scheduled to join Davis in Santa Ana this morning to talk about homeland security at a firefighter’s union hall.

“We had made every effort to rearrange the Senator’s schedule to make last Thursday’s hearing when it was planned, but that obviously didn’t happen,” said Matt Gobush, a spokesman in Lieberman’ Senate office. “The commitment that we have in California Tuesday is one of long standing and one we cannot change.”

Republicans pounced on the news that Graham and Lieberman were engaging in campaign activity including holding fundraisers rather than participating in the nomination hearings.

“According to their own public schedules they are more concerned with collecting campaign cash than protecting the environment by working to fill the number one position at the EPA,” said Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.

Graham is scheduled to hold a fundraiser tonight, while Lieberman will be collecting checks at a handful of California events throughout the day.

Spokesmen for Graham and Lieberman both said their absence from the hearings would do little to erode their support within the environmental community.

“Senator Graham has an outstanding record including the Everglades restoration,” Anderson said. “The environmental community is aware of his commitment to the issues that it cares about.”

Gobush said the Connecticut Democrat continues to maintain a hold on Leavitt’s nomination, because the White House has failed so far to answer questions about air quality around Ground Zero following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and Leavitt refuses to answer pre-hearing questions.

“He is certainly committed to this fight and his hold on Gov. Leavitt’s confirmation stands,” Gobush said. “He demands answers to those questions.”

Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), who is also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, also maintains a hold on Leavitt and has said he will not release it until the White House responds to his “request for a study of the human health consequences of Clean Air Act rollbacks.”

“The nomination will not go forward until this administration commits to giving us the truth about how Clean Air Act rollbacks are going to affect our kids with asthma and seniors with health problems,” Edwards said in a statement last week. “I’ve put a hold on this nomination to try to get the EPA to tell the truth about the safety of the air we breathe.”

Senate Democrats are expected to use today’s nomination hearing to highlight their dissatisfaction with Bush and the GOP’s environmental policies.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who has placed a hold on Leavitt’s nomination until the White House answers questions about the air quality around Ground Zero, is expected to be one of the harshest critics of Bush’s stewardship of the environment at the hearing.

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