Miguel Estrada meet Mike Leavitt: Utah’s governor is the latest political football to be kicked around Capitol Hill by Senate Democrats hoping to score a few points with their key constituencies, and chip away at the president’s policies and popularity.
Estrada, as readers will recall, was a Bush administration selection for the federal bench effectively blackballed by Senate Democrats who refused to bring his nomination up for a vote, insisting he never adequately answered their concerns about his judicial philosophy. What they really feared, of course, is that he wasn’t the kind of activist liberal judge they prefer, so they dragged the process out long enough that Estrada wisely tired of the abusive charade and withdrew.
With Estrada removed from the field, Democrats evidently intend to run a similar play against Leavitt, a moderate Republican “consensus-builder” awaiting confirmation as the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency — as demonstrated by Wednesday’s refusal by eight members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to show up and vote on his nomination.
Pulling something out of the Miguel Estrada playbook, the absentee senators (seven Democrats and one Independent) are saying Leavitt has not adequately answered their questions about how he will administer the agency. But Leavitt’s difficulty in exhaustively answering such questions is understandable. Democrat detractors reportedly submitted roughly 350 written questions to Leavitt, hoping either to lay political traps, trip him up on an issue or pin him down in a way that will restrict his freedom of action once in the job. By contrast, only 30 such questions had to be answered by Clinton EPA administrator Carol Browner, and 90 by Christy Whitman, who resigned several months ago after a lackluster tenure at EPA during which she often seemed at odds with the White House on policy issues.
Responding to their environmentalist constituents, who naturally eye Leavitt’s nomination with suspicion, Democrats on the committee promised to give Leavitt the rotisserie chicken treatment during a confirmation hearing last week. But the roasting never came, either because Democrats found little with which they could crucify the moderate Leavitt, or because they feared that dueling with this articulate, accomplished, knowledgeable nominee on the issues would expose them as the wackos, rather than him. Another explanation for the surprisingly mild reception afforded Leavitt was that the committee vote boycott was in the works all along, as part of the party’s tactic of using nominations as opportunities to preen, posture and politic on the Senate floor — to do anything, in short, but actually debate the issues and cast a vote.
The boycotting tactic was unusual, perhaps even unprecedented, but should not have been surprising, given how effectively delay and obfuscation worked for Democrats in the Estrada episode, and since a number of the boycotters, including Sens. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), Bob Graham (Fla.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (New York) are announced or rumored presidential contenders.
Meanwhile, the EPA is two months and counting without an administrator at the helm — denied the leadership it badly needs — thanks to the Machiavellian political maneuvers of those who claim, with no apparent awareness of the ironies, to be defenders of the environment.