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Sanders, Leahy Come Down Hard On EPA Nominee Scott Pruitt

Carolyn Kaster
Sen. Bernie Sanders during the confirmation hearing for Human Services Secretary-designate Rep. Tom Price on Wednesday. During a second hearing, Sanders grilled Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt on the existence of climate change.

Sen. Bernie Sanders grilled President-elect Donald Trump's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency at his confirmation hearing Wednesday, while Sen. Patrick Leahy called Scott Pruitt "unqualified" and says his appointment would be a "disaster for the country."

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has sued the EPA 14 times in his six years on the job, seeking to protect the interests of oil, gas and agriculture industries in his state. According to the New York Times, "in 13 of those cases, the co-parties included companies that had contributed money to Mr. Pruitt or to Pruitt-affiliated political campaign committees."

"I've seen nominees in the past I've disagreed with on things, but you try to give whoever is president, either party, the benefits of the doubt," said Sen. Leahy, speaking to VPR Wednesday. "It's rare that I've seen a nominee so totally unqualified as this man. Not only unqualified — but actually a danger to our environment."

During the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing Wednesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders spent his few minutes of airtime grilling Pruitt about whether he believes that climate change is caused by human activity.

"The scientific community doesn't tell us it [fossil fuels] impacts, they say it is the cause of climate change; we have to transform our energy system. Do you believe we have to transform our energy system in order to protect the planet for future generations?" Sanders asked Pruitt.

Pruitt began to answer: "I believe the EPA has important role at regulating the emissions of…" but he couldn't finish his sentence before Sanders interrupted, "You didn’t answer my question."

"It's rare that I've seen a nominee so totally unqualified as this man. Not only unqualified, but actually a danger to our environment." — Sen. Patrick Leahy

The two went back and forth, but ultimately Pruitt avoided answering the question of whether he believes fossil fuels are a cause of climate change. Sanders concluded his six minutes of questioning time by saying:

"If that's the kind of EPA administrator you will be, you're not going to get my vote."

Other Democratic members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee also asked pointed questions about Pruitt's record of siding with agriculture and oil and gas industries in order to challenge or get around federal environmental laws.

Leahy isn't a member of the committee, and so couldn't question the nominee directly, but he said he's very worried by Pruitt's record.

"If that's the kind of EPA administrator you will be, you're not going to get my vote." — Sen. Bernie Sanders

"Every time he's spending taxpayers' money to stop efforts to clean up the environment, he also seems to be taking money from those people who want to hurt the environment," he said. "This is not the kind of impartially you need."

Leahy said he plans to vote against Pruitt, assuming his nomination makes it to a Senate floor vote.

"I've always said the Senate should be the conscience of the nation," Leahy said. "If it really is, he should be voted down easily. But I'm afraid that after seeing what they did [by] unconstitutionally blocking Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court, that conscience goes out the window when politics comes in."

To be approved, a cabinet appointee requires a simple majority of the Senate.

However, it's very uncommon for the Senate to vote down a president's cabinet pick. According to Slate, it's only happened nine times.

Kathleen Masterson as VPR's New England News Collaborative reporter. She covered energy, environment, infrastructure and labor issues for VPR and the collaborative. Kathleen came to Vermont having worked as a producer for NPR’s science desk and as a beat reporter covering agriculture and the environment.
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