It’s no surprise that Mike Leavitt will finally take the helm at the U.S. EPA. But who knew, after all the Democratic resistance to his nomination, that keen political maneuvering on the part of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Jim Connaughton, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, would usher the Utah governor into the EPA administrator slot by a landslide? Late last week, Frist dealt Democratic resisters the all-powerful “cloture” blow — a senatorial trump card that can overturn a hold with a minimum of 60 votes. The move paved the way for yesterday’s overwhelming Senate approval of Leavitt by a vote of 88 to 8.

Mikey’s headed to D.C.

Photo: Utah Governor’s office.

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“The cloture threat was an aggressive and very unusual move on [the GOP’s] part,” said Casey Aden-Wansbury, press secretary to Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), one of six senators who had issued holds on Leavitt’s nomination. “The custom of the Senate is to wait until the concerns of the senators that issue holds are satisfied. Clearly we didn’t get answers to all our questions, and clearly there was absolutely nothing more Sen. [Hillary] Clinton [D-N.Y.] or Sen. Lieberman could do to stop the nomination.”

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And yet, even without answers to all of their questions, both Clinton and Lieberman were satisfied enough to officially revoke their holds. It might seem, then, that their bark ended up being a lot worse than their bite — but in fact (to keep this metaphor alive), they were busy savoring a bone they coaxed from Connaughton at the 11th hour. Though Connaughton didn’t admit to a cover-up of evidence about poor air quality at Ground Zero after Sept. 11, 2001, as the senators had pushed for, he did vow to beef up both the investigation into the exposures and risks at the site and the health-care options for those potentially affected.

“In the spirit that led us to that agreement reached by my office with the White House Council on Environmental Quality, I will be voting for Gov. Leavitt when his nomination comes before the Senate, because I intend to work closely with him as we implement this agreement,” said Clinton in a cheery statement issued on Monday. “I believe this is an important step forward in addressing the concerns raised by New Yorkers about the safety of the air we breathe.”

Lieberman, too, was willing to overlook his initial demand that the Bush EPA own up to the cover-up, saying his top priority was to encourage further health studies. “The White House was wrong to meddle with the EPA’s statements on Ground Zero air quality immediately after Sept. 11th,” Lieberman said on Monday. “But [protecting citizens’ health and safety] is what matters most now — insuring that our government will give the people the whole truth about the air they breathe and work relentlessly to improve air quality. This agreement gives us the opportunity to protect public health.”

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Lieberman and Clinton deserve congratulations for extracting a commitment from Connaughton, but they seem to have glossed over the broader reason that many Democrats had for blocking the Leavitt nomination: drawing attention to the Bush administration’s environmental record at large, which has consequences that reach well beyond the boundaries of Ground Zero. “The main point of the Leavitt resistance was to get the public and the media and political leaders to acknowledge the larger crisis of the Bush administration’s record,” said an executive at an environmental organization who asked to remain anonymous. “Really, that larger goal eventually dwindled and these last-minute negotiations were an effort to save face. The Democrats quite honestly realized that they had milked the situation as long and as far as they could, and they were trying to bow out of it as gracefully as possible after having made such a racket.”

Perhaps more consistent with this larger goal than Lieberman and Clinton’s negotiation was the impassioned letter that Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) wrote to Bush in explaining his decision to support Leavitt: “Mr. President, I rise today in support of Governor Mike Leavitt to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency … because we need a leader at the agency [and because] I am concerned about the morale of the employees at the agency. [Nevertheless,] the record of the Environmental Protection Agency under this administration is abysmal.”

A Rollback Gathers No Moss

In that same letter to Bush, Jeffords went on to note the ominous coincidence that the Senate took up Leavitt’s nomination on the very day that the Bush administration committed “the single greatest rollback on Clean Air since there has been a federal Clean Air Act.”

Jeffords speaks his mind.

Photo: U.S. Senate.

Jeffords was referring, of course, to the formal publication of the revised New Source Review rules. It would probably be foolish to expect Leavitt to so much as lift a finger to overturn the rollback, but 13 states and 20 cities may just do it themselves. Lawsuits filed on Monday by attorneys general of those 13 states (nearly half of which have Republican governors) and mayors of the cities seek to block the changes to the Clean Air Act, contending that the new rules threaten the health of their citizens.

“We believe that the executive branch has broken federal law by enacting these NSR revisions,” said Judith Enck, policy advisor to New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (D), who is spearheading the lawsuit effort. “The Bush administration may argue that they are simply ‘re-interpreting the law,’ but they are in fact making sweeping and radical changes to it. If you are going to change the law, you have to be part of the legislative branch, not part of the executive branch. The NSR rollback was a dramatic overreach of executive authority.”

Coming from more than a quarter of the states in the country, such allegations sound formidable — but given how wily the Bush administration is vis-a-vis legal matters, how good are the chances that these states and cities will win? “Excellent,” said Enck, referencing, among other things, findings from the General Accounting Office that the rule changes were based on unsound science and anecdotal evidence. So are the plaintiffs willing to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court? “Well, potentially,” said Enck, “but we’re confident we are going to win in the federal court level.”

Meanwhile, the EPA has begun preparing a counterattack. Apparently in an effort to preempt the communications imbroglio that could stem from this lawsuit — and to prevent any more states from jumping on the bandwagon — the agency sent out invitations to a coterie of GOP governors to join them for a briefing last Friday on the merits of the NSR changes. Enck sees the meeting as damning evidence that the NSR rollback is partisan in nature: “It shows that the policy has everything to do with political strategy — making it easier for large corporate donors to avoid spending money on pollution.”

But according to John Millett, a press officer at the EPA, the exclusive briefing was simply a matter of efficacy: “This is not an effort on the agency’s part to politicize this issue. It is simply an effort to communicate the facts of NSR outside of an atmosphere that was already divided along these lines.” If both parties had been in the room, said Millett, it would have been pandemonium, and nothing would have been accomplished. Millett insisted that he was also offering an NSR briefing to Democratic governors, but when pressed to pony up an invitation as evidence, he said, “I’m not sure what form the invite is in at this point — it may just be in voicemail [stage], so I’d have a hard time sending it along.”

Commission Accomplished

Werbach, the new commish.

“No, we are not chummy,” Adam Werbach said in response to a query from Muckraker about his relationship to Chris Daly, the mischief-making San Francisco supervisor who recently used his power during a brief stint as acting mayor to anoint Werbach and environmental architect Robin Chiang commissioners of the city’s Public Utilities Commission. “He made very clear to me that he has no particular policy expectations of me. The only thing he asked me to do was vote my conscience.”

Daly, too, insisted that his appointments were by no means favors to friends. “Commissioner Werbach and I have met no more than a couple of times in our lives, and Commissioner Chaing and I only met for the first time last week.” Neither Werbach nor Chiang had ever endorsed or donated to any of his political campaigns, Daly said. He swears himself deeply opposed to crony politics: “I was very unhappy with the candidates that the mayor had in mind — specifically Andrew Lee, who is patently unqualified and had no base of knowledge in utilities or conservation or public works problems. He’s got a mother who has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the mayor — that’s his qualification.” With the right commissioners, “there is a great opportunity to bring environmental vision and environmental justice to the PUC,” said Daly. The commission has far-reaching influence on matters of great environmental consequence, ranging from land use to watershed management to renewable energy projects.

Werbach, the former president of the Sierra Club, considers himself up to the job: “I have been outside the system up until now … And I think environmentalists are very comfortable being outside and criticizing the ones inside. And the truth is there needs to be an environmentalist on every public utilities commission in the country.” So what would Werbach like to be remembered for as commissioner? “I think making San Francisco the clean-energy capital of the world,” he said. (Read a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed by Werbach on this goal.)

But for now, Werbach needs to worry about more practical concerns — such as getting himself invited to PUC meetings: “I called in and they told me the first meeting was canceled. I said, ‘Why?’ They said there wasn’t a quorum. But I said, ‘I was never invited to come in the first place!’ So now I’m calling the head of the commission [staff]. I mean, he works for me, right?”