RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Senate Democrats voted to derail the confirmation of Governor Glenn Youngkin’s most controversial cabinet pick on Tuesday.
Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who previously headed President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency, is being considered for Virginia’s next Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources.
The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee voted along party lines to remove Wheeler from a resolution confirming Youngkin’s cabinet selections. The move spells trouble for the embroiled nominee but it’s not necessarily the end of the road. Republicans could revive the confirmation process on the full Senate floor but that’ll only work if at least one Democrat decides to break with their party and approve Wheeler.
Senator Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) previously suggested he was open to supporting Wheeler but he declined to comment on Tuesday when asked if that was still his stance. Sources familiar with his thinking now believe he’ll vote in opposition along with the rest of his party.
The unusually contentious confirmation process follows swift backlash to Wheeler’s nomination.
Senator Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) told the committee his office received more than 500 letters against it. More than 150 former EPA employees echoed that opposition in a letter describing Wheeler as an extremist who favored polluters and methodically weakened the agency’s ability to protect the environment.
Earlier this week, a group of about 130 EPA employees who have worked directly with Wheeler sought to paint a different picture, urging the Senate to support him and rebutting what they called “highly biased and unsupported” criticism.
In a statement, Youngkin’s spokesperson Macaulay Porter said, “Andrew Wheeler is a highly qualified individual with an extensive background on natural resources and issues critically important to Virginians. The Governor is disappointed that the committee put partisan politics over the selection of an experienced public servant who would prioritize cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and James River.”
Speaking to the Senate Finance and Appropriations Economic Development and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Tuesday morning, Wheeler sought common ground with skeptical lawmakers. He said his top priorities would be getting the Chesapeake Bay back on track, bettering coastal resiliency, improving Virginia’s outdoor resources and making permitting more efficient and transparent.
“That’s the way that I’ve tried to approach environmental issues throughout my career is in a bipartisan fashion and I would like to work with all of you on the problems that face this state,” Wheeler said.
Narissa Turner, clean energy and climate policy campaigns manager with the Virginia Conservation Network, said Wheeler’s record speaks for itself. Turner said, during his time in the Trump Administration, he weakened rules to reduce fossil fuel emissions, gutted clean water protections, sought to slash federal funding for the Chesapeake Bay clean up, downplayed the threat of climate change and was overly deferential to corporate interests.
“We saw what happened at the federal level. We don’t want to see that happen in Virginia and so the top line message is Andrew Wheeler is bad for Virginia’s environment,” Turner said.
Senator Richard Stuart (R-King George), who chaired Youngkin’s natural resources landing team that Wheeler served on, accused activists of misrepresenting his record.
“If you actually look at his record I think he did a really good job and I think it is more about President Trump than it is Andrew Wheeler,” Stuart said. “We have to give the governor deference for the people and the team that he wants to build.”
In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw said, “Senate Democrats have been instrumental in passing and protecting the Virginia Clean Economy Act, participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and so much more. The economy of the future requires a transition to wind, solar, and other renewable-energy jobs and technologies that will be a part of the Commonwealth’s prosperity for decades to come. Virginia must continue its future-forward economic agenda. Governor Youngkin’s nominee is a step in the wrong direction.”