Leavitt's environmental critics may have little chance of scuttling his nomination, but Democrats exploited the occasion to voice their frustration at an administration they accused of undoing decades of environmental progress while undermining EPA's integrity and independence.
Republicans countered that the air is cleaner now than when Bush took office and that Democrats were merely indulging in partisan politics.
Leavitt responded calmly to the many hostile questions about the Bush administration's environmental record, assuring senators he favors balanced policies and would speak his mind to the president.
In his opening statement, committee chair Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., attempted to head off the expected attacks on the administration's policies by focusing attention on Leavitt's record of achievement as governor of Utah.
Leavitt is currently the longest serving governor in the nation. He is a former chairman of the National Governors Association, and in that position he evidently won the respect of many Democrats including Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., a former governor who now sits on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
One of his most important environmental achievements as governor was putting together a multi-state agreement aimed at reducing the haze that has obscured the view of the Grand Canyon.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has personal ties to Leavitt's family, seemed to capture the mixed sentiments of many Democrats, who combined respect for Leavitt's abilities with a profound contempt for Bush administration policies.
"You've got a lot of guts taking this job, because you're in a big hole to start with," commented Reid. "I'm not sure you have the ability, or anyone has the ability, to override the anti-environmental policies this administration's got."
In his prepared statement before the committee, Leavitt called himself a "problem-solver" who believes "solutions are found in the productive middle" of disputes.
Noting that Whitman often lost battles with the White House over environmental protections, several committee Democrats pressed Leavitt to declare whether he would fight for EPA's independence in the Bush administration.
"The president will always know where I stand," Leavitt answered.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oreg., asserted EPA enforcement has grown too lax, and he asked whether Leavitt would "ramp it up."
In explaining his "enforcement philosophy," the nominee replied, "the goal is compliance, and there are times when strong enforcement is the only tool available."
Leavitt asserted he believes the United States can "increase the velocity of environmental progress" without "compromising our competitive position economically in the world."
Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., who left the Republican party largely because of disputes with the administration's environmental policies, ticked off eight specific examples of how the Bush administration is "dismantling our environmental laws." Among the issues cited by Jeffords and committee Democrats:
- Allowing the fund that pays for cleaning up Superfund sites to go bankrupt;
- Permitting major polluters to avoid installing modern control equipment under changes to the New Source Review rule;
- Forcing EPA to "add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones" relating to the air quality standards surrounding Ground Zero after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The administration's failure to answer senators' requests for EPA-related information also appeared to have infuriated Jeffords and other committee Democrats.
"I can't tell you how frustrated I am," said Jeffords during the question-and-answer period, "that we continue to ask for answers and get nothing."
Leavitt dodged most of the Democrats' specific questions concerning the administration's environmental policies.
Sen. Hillary Clinton has said she will put a hold on Leavitt's nomination until the administration responds to the EPA Inspector General's findings that the White House forced EPA to soften statements about the hazards in the air near Ground Zero after the collapse of the World Trade Center.
Clinton quoted the Inspector General's findings that EPA's press releases stating the air in Lower Manhattan was safe to breathe "were not supported by the data available at the time."
"I just cannot accept that there seems to have been a deliberate effort at the direction of the White House to provide unwarranted reassurances to New Yorkers about whether their air was safe to breathe," said Clinton.
Amidst the hostile questioning, Sen. Reid provided a rare moment of comic relief when he wondered aloud, "why in the world would you want this job?"
The packed Senate chamber broke into laughter when Reid finished the thought by telling Leavitt, "the fact that you've decided to take the job in no way is impugning your intelligence."