WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans are moving to confirm a former coal industry lobbyist as the second highest ranking official at the Environmental Protection Agency, putting him next in line if embattled administrator Scott Pruitt is forced to resign or is fired.
A Senate vote could come as soon as Thursday on the nomination of Andrew Wheeler to serve as EPA's deputy administrator.
The push comes as Democrats and a few Republicans are calling on President Donald Trump to replace Pruitt, whose tenure has been threatened by a series of damaging ethics disclosures. If confirmed, Wheeler would be poised to become the agency's active chief, at least temporarily, if Pruitt were forced out.
Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico called on Republicans to delay a vote on Wheeler while lawmakers review his credentials to run the agency, citing Pruitt's uncertain status.
"The problem with the Wheeler nomination is if (Pruitt) goes tomorrow, Wheeler is in fact the administrator. And that's a very, very serious problem," Udall said Wednesday. "And so what we're going to ask ... is that he go through a vetting process similar to taking over the Environmental Protection Agency. And we hope we can get some Republican support on that."
The Senate Environment and Public Works voted along party lines 11-10 in early February to advance Wheeler's nomination.
With Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona out to receive cancer treatment, all remaining GOP senators and at least one Democrat would have to vote yes for Wheeler to be confirmed.
Staff for Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a state economically dependent on coal mining, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he would vote to confirm Wheeler.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, another Democrat from a conservative-leaning coal-mining state, also said she would vote yes.
"After meeting with Mr. Wheeler and reviewing his record, I've decided to support his nomination," Heitkamp said Wednesday. "I believe he'll be open to working on issues important to North Dakota in a pragmatic and fair way, and I'll hold him accountable to make sure he implements the mission of the EPA in a way that works for my state."
Both Manchin and Heitkamp broke last year with their party's leaders to vote in favor of confirming Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general aligned with the oil and gas industry. Since arriving at EPA in February 2017, Pruitt has worked relentlessly to scrap, roll back and rewrite pollution regulations opposed by the fossil-fuel industry.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the sole Republican to oppose Pruitt, also said she intends to support Wheeler's nomination.
"Mr. Wheeler has demonstrated that he understands the mission of the EPA and the role of Congress when it comes to oversight and accountability," Collins said in a statement.
Up until his nomination by Trump, Wheeler worked last year as a lobbyist with a client list that included Murray Energy, one of the nation's largest coal mining companies. Earlier in his career, Wheeler worked as a lawyer at EPA and as a senior GOP staffer for the Senate environment committee.
Wheeler accompanied company CEO Robert "Bob" Murray during a series of closed-door meetings to lobby the Trump administration to kill environmental regulations affecting coal mines. Asked about the meetings during a November hearing before the Senate environment committee, Wheeler acknowledged he attended but said he couldn't remember any details.
Photos later emerged that showed Wheeler sitting at the table during an undisclosed meeting where Murray handed Energy Secretary Rick Perry a four-page "action plan" to revive the nation's struggling coal industry. The Trump administration later carried out several of the recommended actions.
Like Pruitt, Wheeler has expressed public skepticism about the consensus of climate scientists that the continued burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of global warming.