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EPA Chief Pruitt Faces Tough Questions On Capitol Hill

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, accompanied by EPA Chief Financial Officer Holly Greaves, testifies before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
Alex Brandon
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, accompanied by EPA Chief Financial Officer Holly Greaves, testifies before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

Updated at 2:54 p.m. ET

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt faced withering criticism from congressional Democrats on Thursday, with one lawmaker calling him "unfit to hold public office." But Republican members of Congress — especially those representing states with large fossil fuel industries — rallied to Pruitt's defense.

It's the first time Pruitt appeared before lawmakers since weeks of accusations prompted a string of investigations — by the EPA Inspector General's office, at the Government Accountability Office and in Congress.

Pruitt has drawn scrutiny for a sweetheart housing arrangement in a condo owned by the wife of a lobbyist, hefty pay raises granted to staffers over the objection of the White House, a $43,000 soundproof phone booth he installed in his office and the reassignment of staffers within the agency who criticized the administrator's moves.

"You have failed as a steward of American taxpayer dollars and our environment," said Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., at the hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Environment Subcommittee.

"Every indication we have is that you really should resign," added Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "You are unfit to hold public office and undeserving of the public trust."

Pruitt dismissed the allegations of ethical misconduct as "half-truths" and suggested that he is the target of a partisan attack.

"Let's have no illusions about what is really going on here," he said. "Those who have attacked the EPA and attacked me are doing so because they want to attack and derail the president's agenda and undermine this administration's priorities. I'm simply not going to let that happen."

Pruitt has been at the forefront of the administration's deregulation push. He has challenged the scientific consensus behind climate change and worked to roll back Obama-era policies designed to limit carbon pollution.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, cheered those moves and suggested Pruitt is being targeted for retaliation.

"If you can't debate the policies in Washington, you attack the personality. And that's what's happening to you," Barton said.

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., agreed, calling the allegations against Pruitt a "classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism."

Some Republicans from swing districts were more critical of the EPA administrator.

Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., who represents suburban Philadelphia, questioned whether Pruitt's costly, 24-hour security detail is necessary.

"I'm just going to be very honest with you," Costello said. "When folks read about trips to Disneyland, professional basketball games, Rose Bowl and the additional security detail related to that, that doesn't fit well with a lot of people."

Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., also questioned why Pruitt needed an expensive, soundproof phone booth in his office when similar facilities are available elsewhere in the EPA building.

"I think it was a waste of funds," Lance said.

Pruitt was also challenged over a new proposal to limit the scientific studies the EPA can use in making regulatory decisions.

Pruitt defended the proposal, which would allow only studies that make all data publicly available, as a step toward greater transparency. But it has been challenged by organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., said the proposed rule would exclude the kind of epidemiological studies that have been the basis for landmark regulations in the past, because those studies often include nonpublic, personal health information.

"You have done this to allow your rich and powerful corporate friends to create more pollution in order to increase profit at the expense of the public good," said Ruiz, an emergency room physician.

Pruitt's fate at EPA may depend on his performance in back-to-back hearings Thursday and whether they satisfy the growing number of people with questions about his actions in office.

President Trump has stood by Pruitt for weeks, tweeting that he is "doing a great job." But he has fired other Cabinet-level members shortly after praising them.

"These hearings are clearly make-and-break hearings for Scott Pruitt," says Ana Unruh Cohen of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Pruitt will be hoping to satisfy the many questions from lawmakers — but his main audience will be down the street, at the White House.

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