RICHMOND, Virginia – The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee blocked Governor Glenn Youngkin’s nominee for Secretary of Natural Resources, former Trump EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. On Tuesday afternoon, State Senator Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) moved to remove Wheeler’s name from a Senate resolution to confirm the nominees.
“We received a letter from 150 former EPA employees, who suggested that Mr. Wheeler had undermined the work of the EPA and worked against the environmental interests in this country. We think that members of the governor’s cabinet ought to be able to unite us as Virginians, and certainly the secretary of natural resources ought to be one that we have confidence in, in terms of working for the preservation and conservation of our natural resources,” Deeds said.
State Senator Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania) replied, “When he served as the administration’s EPA principal, all the things that he’s done, you get $225 million of funding for water reuse projects, protect the Bay, provided $200 million for wastewater infrastructure to keep runoff and sewage from reaching the Bay, provided funding and principal agencies to address agricultural runoff. In 2020, the Bay obtained the lowest anoxic dead zone in 30 years. Under sea water grasses have increased from 34,000 to 100,000 acres. Air emissions decreased seven percent during the last administration, these reductions were pre-COVID through 2019.”
The last time a cabinet nominee was blocked was 2006. Republicans blocked Daniel LeBlanc, a former president of labor organization the Virginia AFL-CIO, from serving as then-Governor Tim Kaine’s secretary of the commonwealth, according to The Virginian-Pilot.
Deeds recalled that incident in committee Tuesday.
“The precedent has been set,” he said.
The motion to remove Wheeler passed along party lines, and then the committee passed the nominee confirmation resolution, sans Wheeler.
Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said in a statement, “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.”
Ongoing Confirmation Fight
Republicans in both the House and the Senate are considering their options to get Wheeler confirmed. One potential strategy involves getting a Democratic senator to support Wheeler. That would allow Senate Republicans plus the lieutenant governor plus the Democratic senator to use a majority vote to force consideration of Wheeler on the Senate floor, even though he was removed in committee.
Last week, State Senator Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) seemed open-minded about Wheeler, while still highlighting his own pro-environment stance. This week, Morrissey is more closed-mouth about where he stands. On Wednesday morning, Wheeler met with Morrissey, part of Wheeler’s campaign of individual meetings with legislators.
“I’m not making any more public comments on Andrew Wheeler,” Morrissey told The Virginia Star after meeting with Wheeler. “He presented himself and the governor will have to make their best choices in what to do.”
“He asked to meet with me. I met with him. I think it’s a courtesy that every legislator should show any gubernatorial appointee,” Morrissey said.
Republicans have other options to try to convince Senate Democrats to change their minds about Wheeler thanks to Republican control of the House. There are two positions on the Virginia Supreme Court that will need to be filled, and depending on where those candidates currently serve, that could create more vacancies to fill. Republicans could offer to back Democratic choices for some of those positions in exchange for support for Wheeler.
“Let’s hypothetically say we move two [judges] up from the Court of Appeals. So that would be four decisions that would be made. So I could see a discussion,” Senate Minority Leader Thomas Norment (R-James City) told The Star.
He expects House Republicans to fight back.
“I expect the House Republicans are going to feel like they need to put a marker down. If the Senate Democrats do this, there will be consequences when it comes to the House of Delegates,” Norment said.
He suggested that House Republicans could block a judge’s confirmation to Virginia’s powerful State Corporation Commission (SCC). Last week, House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore told The Washington Post that House Republicans will not reappoint Angela Navarro to the SCC as a reaction to Democratic opposition to Wheeler.
When asked if House Republicans would block a judicial nomination, Speaker of the House Todd Gilbert said, “I think that’s a little farfetched. I think there are some limits to what’s tit-for-tat, but certainly there are numerous options for how to respond to them disrespecting a gubernatorial nominee like that. So, we’ll just evaluate what those might be.”
“I think anytime the governor makes cabinet nominations, we’ll see what the possibilities are for getting the person through,” Deputy Majority Leader Delegate Israel O’Quinn (R-Washington) said.
The Star asked what leverage House Republicans have.
O’Quinn said, “I don’t like using the term leverage. To me, they just need to do the right thing and put him back on the resolution.”
– – –