In Key Vote, Democrats Reject Wheeler Cabinet Appointment

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Democrats who narrowly control the Virginia Senate stuck together Tuesday and voted unanimously against approving former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin's Cabinet.

On a 21-19 party-line vote, the chamber agreed to an earlier committee amendment that had stripped Wheeler from a resolution containing Youngkin's Cabinet appointees requiring legislative approval.

Tuesday's action isn't necessarily the end of the line for the issue. The resolution still needs a final procedural vote in the Senate before it moves to the GOP-controlled House, which could push for changes.

Wheeler, whose appointment has provoked a backlash from Democrats, environmental groups and many career EPA employees, was plucked out of the resolution last week by Democrats on a Senate committee.

Republican Sen. Richard Stuart defended Wheeler on Tuesday, saying he shouldn't be penalized for the fact that he worked for former President Donald Trump.

"His credentials are impeccable, and he should be confirmed," Stuart said.

Sen. Adam Ebbin agreed that Wheeler was affable, highly intelligent and knowledgeable on federal environmental law.

"If we're to confirm Mr. Wheeler, though, I'm confident he'll use the intelligence and subject matter expertise to do exactly what he did at the federal level, systematically deconstruct regulations that protect our environment," Ebbin said.

Among those voting against Wheeler's appointment was centrist Democrat Joe Morrissey. Morrissey previously indicated he found Wheeler's answers during a committee question-and-answer session satisfactory and told The Washington Post he was open to supporting Wheeler, leading to questions about whether he would vote with the GOP.

Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist who led the EPA during the latter half of the Trump administration, overseeing the rollbacks of environmental protections implemented under former President Barack Obama's administration.

His critics have characterized his leadership of the agency as overly deferential to corporate interests and have accused him of downplaying the threats of climate change.

Wheeler has said his tenure as administrator was not covered fairly in the news media, and some of his former colleagues have defended his record and professionalism.

The Senate advanced the resolution without any discussion of other nominees. No one else appointed by Youngkin has drawn the same degree of scrutiny.

The rejection of Cabinet secretaries is rare in Virginia.

Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said the governor was disappointed in the vote and hoped the Senate would reconsider.

"It's clear Mr. Wheeler is extraordinarily qualified to be Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources and admirably served for decades in the highest levels of government," she said in a statement.

Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, said the governor should move on and find a new nominee.

"With evidence now that he lacks the votes to push this nominee forward, we hope Youngkin will see reason and appoint a Natural Resources Secretary who will prioritize protecting the lands, air and water of the Commonwealth," Town said in a statement.