April 26, 2018, by Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Ari Natter
Embattled Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt will face increasingly skeptical lawmakers Thursday in a pair of back-to-back hearings that could dictate whether he keeps his job much longer.
Democrats are prepared to interrogate Pruitt about damaging revelations on his spending, travel and a controversial condo rental that have raised questions about his effectiveness. And Republicans have bluntly told Pruitt to expect a bipartisan grilling.
“I warned him it’s going to be a fairly rugged hearing,” said Representative Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma, after a phone call with Pruitt on Wednesday.
The hearings before an appropriations subcommittee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee are nominally on the EPA’s budget. But they will inevitably be dominated by discussion of controversies as they mark Pruitt’s first public appearance on Capitol Hill since a series of critical reports began surfacing last month.
Pruitt will be seeking to placate irked Republican lawmakers, but he also may be playing for a more powerful audience, as he tries to persuade top White House officials — and President Donald Trump — he should keep his job. White House officials have cautioned Republican lawmakers and other conservative allies to temper their defense of Pruitt, in a sign administration support for the EPA chief may be waning.
“We’re having ongoing conversations” about Pruitt and the reports involving him, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday. “We’re evaluating these concerns, and we expect the EPA administrator to answer for them.”
Four Republicans and at least 170 Democrats in the House and Senate have sought Pruitt’s ouster amid the cascade of questions about his ethics and judgment. Some of those questions center around his rental of a Capitol Hill bedroom from a lobbyist for $50 a night under unusually generous terms.
Pruitt also has drawn fire — and at least nine formal investigations — for frequent travel to his home state of Oklahoma, questionable spending decisions at the EPA, raises for two top aides over White House objections and allegations that some employees were sidelined after questioning his decisions.
Pruitt spent much of Wednesday preparing for the hearings. He was expected to discount his role in some matters, including by repeating an assertion that he did not authorize the pay raises under an obscure provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Documents released by the EPA’s internal watchdog show EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson signed forms approving the move.
Pruitt also has stressed that security-related changes at the EPA — such as decisions to guard him around the clock and sweep his office for listening devices — were dictated by his protective service detail, and were not a matter of personal preference.
It’s not clear whether that strategy will succeed. “He can try his best to blame everyone but himself, but these scandals all have one thing in common: Scott Pruitt,” said Melinda Pierce, federal policy director of the Sierra Club.
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Before the hearing, EPA staff shared with select Republicans a 23-page memo of rebuttals and talking points addressing a slate of accusations. The document, obtained by Bloomberg, compares Pruitt’s trips to pricey international travel by previous administrators serving under Democratic presidents and highlights reports of a surge of threats against Pruitt.
Pruitt can count on help from some Republican lawmakers who will stick to questions about policy.
“The purpose of the hearing of course is the EPA budget,” said Representative Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota. “We don’t have these Cabinet members in front of Congress enough to spend a lot of time asking him about sensationalist issues when there are real serious policy issues.”
Democrats suggested lawmakers would be shirking their duty if they ignored allegations about Pruitt.
“Regardless of party or politics, our committee has a duty to continue bringing the truth to light and holding Mr. Pruitt accountable for his recurring and unapologetic abuses of power,” Representative Paul Tonko, a New York Democrat, said in an emailed statement. “He is unfit for the office he holds and needs to explain his inappropriate use of taxpayer funds and abuse of his position.”
Panel Republicans had unsolicited advice for Pruitt on Wednesday, with Representative John Shimkus of Illinois suggesting the administrator’s best approach “would be answer the questions, stay calm and the time will eventually end.”