Then-EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler testifies at a hearing titled Oversight of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on May 20, 2020 in Washington, DC. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler will face questions as his agency faces legal challenges and criticism for easing enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic and rolling back vehicle emissions rules. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Pool via Getty Images)
Senate Democrats blocked the appointment of Andrew Wheeler as Virginia’s next secretary of natural and historic resources in a floor vote Tuesday, ending a drawn-out fight between the caucus and Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who nominated the former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Donald Trump for the position.
“Andrew Wheeler clearly has the brains and talent to be a member of this administration,” said Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax. “But the bottom line is he’s not the right person for this secretariat.”
Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, warned that if Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, were confirmed, the new secretary would use his “intelligence and subject-matter expertise to do exactly what he did at the federal level — systematically deconstruct the regulations which protect our environment.”
In a party-line vote, 21 Democrats overrode 19 Republicans to strip Wheeler’s name from a resolution confirming Youngkin’s cabinet appointments. The final resolution must be voted on a third time before officially passing the Senate.
Nevertheless, Wheeler will continue to be a presence in Richmond for the next month: Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said that “pursuant to the Constitution,” he would continue to serve as secretary until the General Assembly adjourns, and that the governor hopes the Senate will reconsider its decision.
“It’s clear Mr. Wheeler is extraordinarily qualified to be secretary of natural and historic resources and admirably served for decades in the highest levels of government,” said Porter. “The governor is disappointed in today’s vote because he was looking forward to Mr. Wheeler accomplishing great things on behalf of Virginians.”
Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, spoke in Wheeler’s defense Tuesday, saying that he “had absolutely knocked the ball out of the park” in testifying before lawmakers and had “done a tremendous amount for clean air and water in Virginia.”
“I understand that some of these environmental groups out there don’t like him because of who he worked for and that’s just a shame,” he said.
Since Youngkin announced his intention to nominate Wheeler for Virginia’s top environmental job in early January, Democrats have pledged to reject the appointment.
In opposition to the choice, they cited a string of controversial decisions during Wheeler’s tenure as EPA chief, including the rollback of dozens of environmental rules to protect air and water, a proposal to cut federal funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program by 90 percent and moves that many agency scientists said aimed to reduce transparency.
Wheeler’s former role as a lobbyist who worked with companies such as coal giant Murray Energy and attitudes toward climate change also came under scrutiny.
But with only a narrow 21-19 margin in the Senate, the caucus needed every vote to keep Wheeler out of office.
During a January meeting of the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, appeared to be softening on Wheeler,
“Why do you think you’re such a lightning rod of controversy?” Morrissey asked Wheeler. “Because I’ll be clear, what I’ve heard today, particularly on things that are important to me, all sound good.”
Wheeler responded, “I don’t think the things that I did at EPA were covered very well by the press.”
Morrissey, however, voted with his fellow Democrats Tuesday. Immediately after the vote, the caucus released a statement affirming the rejection.
“After hearing grave concerns from our communities, stakeholders, and organizations—as well as Mr. Wheeler’s former colleagues at the EPA—we cannot in good conscience confirm such an alarming choice,” said Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, and Caucus Chair Mamie Locke, D-Portsmouth.
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