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Senate Republicans aim to confirm EPA deputy administrator

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republicans are moving to confirm a former coal industry lobbyist as the second-highest official at the Environmental Protection Agency, putting him next in line to run the agency if embattled administrator Scott Pruitt is forced out or resigns.

The Senate voted 53-45 Thursday to limit debate on Andrew Wheeler’s nomination as deputy administrator, clearing the way for a final vote as soon as Thursday afternoon. Three Democrats — Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — joined with Republicans to move the nomination forward.

Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico called for the vote to be delayed while lawmakers review Wheeler’s credentials to run the agency, citing Pruitt’s uncertain status amid damaging ethics disclosures.

“The problem with the Wheeler nomination is if (Pruitt) goes tomorrow, Wheeler is in fact the administrator. And that’s a very, very serious problem,” Udall said Wednesday. “And so what we’re going to ask … is that he go through a vetting process similar to taking over the Environmental Protection Agency.”

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said the circumstances surrounding Wheeler have changed since the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted along party lines in February to advance Wheeler’s nomination.

“I think it would be best advised to hold off on this vote to see if we are voting on the acting administrator or the deputy administrator,” Cardin said, citing a “cloud over Administrator Pruitt.”

Heitkamp, who faces a tough re-election in a state won easily by President Donald Trump, said that after meeting with Wheeler and reviewing his record, she supports his nomination. “I believe he’ll be open to working on issues important to North Dakota in a pragmatic and fair way, and I’ll hold him accountable to make sure he implements the mission of the EPA in a way that works for my state,” she said.

Heitkamp and Manchin, who also faces a tough race in state Trump won easily, broke last year with their party’s leaders to vote in favor of confirming Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general aligned with the oil and gas industry. Since arriving at EPA in February 2017, Pruitt has worked relentlessly to scrap, roll back and rewrite pollution regulations opposed by the fossil-fuel industry.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the sole Republican to oppose Pruitt, also said she intends to support Wheeler’s nomination.

“Mr. Wheeler has demonstrated that he understands the mission of the EPA and the role of Congress when it comes to oversight and accountability,” Collins said in a statement.

Up until his nomination by Trump, Wheeler worked last year as a lobbyist with a client list that included Murray Energy, one of the nation’s largest coal mining companies. Earlier in his career, Wheeler worked as a lawyer at EPA and as a senior GOP staffer for the Senate environment committee.

Wheeler accompanied company CEO Robert “Bob” Murray during a series of closed-door meetings to lobby the Trump administration to kill environmental regulations affecting coal mines. Asked about the meetings during a November hearing before the Senate environment committee, Wheeler acknowledged he attended but said he couldn’t remember any details.

Photos later emerged that showed Wheeler sitting at the table during an undisclosed meeting where Murray handed Energy Secretary Rick Perry a four-page “action plan” to revive the nation’s struggling coal industry. The Trump administration later carried out several of the recommended actions.

Like Pruitt, Wheeler has expressed public skepticism about the consensus of climate scientists that the continued burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of global warming.

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Follow Associated Press environmental reporter Michael Biesecker at http://twitter.com/mbieseck and Matthew Daly at http://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC

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