Scott Pruitt on Capitol Hill: What to Expect in Round Three

Source: By Lisa Friedman, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, before the first of two hearings in front of House panels last month.Pete Marovich for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, is expected to field more tough questions from lawmakers about allegations of ethical abuses and excessive spending when he appears Wednesday before a Senate Appropriations Committee panel.

The hearing, to discuss the agency’s budget for the coming year, will be the first opportunity for senators to ask Mr. Pruitt about his first-class travel, foreign trips organized by lobbyists, renting a $50-a-night condo from a lobbyist with business before the agency and other issues that have become the subject of 12 different federal investigations. It follows appearances by Mr. Pruitt last month before two House panels.

While Mr. Pruitt’s last grilling from Congress was blistering, critics and supporters alike say the administrator walked away mostly unscathed. Republicans said they were largely satisfied by Mr. Pruitt’s answers, and President Trump has continued to express his support.

Mr. Pruitt’s champions said they expected him come through his Senate inquiry intact as well.

“I just think that President Trump has affirmed time and time again that he’s still very supportive of Scott Pruitt,” said Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, which promotes fossil fuels. “Barring any shocking revelation, I think this drip, drip, drip of information is not likely to cause his ouster.”

Here’s what to watch for as Mr. Pruitt takes the stand at 9:30 a.m. before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the environment.

What the Democrats are likely to ask

Democrats intend, as they did last month, to throw the kitchen sink at Mr. Pruitt. And they have plenty to ask about.

In the three weeks since Mr. Pruitt testified before the two House committees, the public has learned that the administrator has allowed lobbyists and Washington power brokers to arrange his foreign travel, that Mr. Pruitt’s aggressive effort to shroud his meetings and speaking engagements in secrecy was done primarily to avoid uncomfortable and unexpected questions and not out of a concern for security as his staff had claimed, and that E.P.A. aides took steps to conceal a dinner Mr. Pruitt held in Rome with Cardinal George Pell last year after they learned that the cardinal had been charged with sexual abuse.

That’s in addition to a raft of other longstanding questions about Mr. Pruitt’s first-class travel and the need for a 24-hour security detail of at least 20 people that has so far cost more than $3 million.

What Republicans are expected to talk about

This one is tougher. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, chairwoman of the appropriations committee’s environment panel, called for Mr. Pruitt to testify at a time when Republican support for Mr. Pruitt appeared to be on a downswing. Since then, however, Republicans have tamped down criticism of the E.P.A. chief.

One notable exception is Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

Mr. Grassley on Tuesday threatened to be the first Republican to call on Mr. Pruitt to resign, citing his frustration with the administrator over waivers the E.P.A. has given to small fuel refineries exempting them from a federal ethanol mandate on the nation’s gasoline. While Mr. Grassley is not a member of the committee that Mr. Pruitt will face, his concerns are shared by other corn-state Republicans and could become an issue at the hearing.

If past is prologue, though, Mr. Pruitt is likely to hear Republicans express concerns about his stewardship of E.P.A. in their opening statements but mostly draw attention to the regulatory rollbacks that they, and many of their constituents, support.

What Pruitt is expected to say

Last time around, Mr. Pruitt repeatedly shifted blame to members of his staff for the spending and ethical issues dogging him.

He said his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, had been solely responsible for giving $72,000 in raises to two aides who previously worked with Mr. Pruitt in Oklahoma. He said career staff members had signed off on spending $43,000 to install a secure phone booth, an expense that was ultimately found to violate federal law. And he said his security detail had insisted he fly first class for his own protection.

In one exchange with Representative Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, Mr. Pruitt had to be asked three times if he was the E.P.A. administrator before answering in the affirmative, but avoided answering whether the buck stopped with him.

“That’s not a yes or no answer,” Mr. Pruitt replied then. It’s a safe bet Mr. Pruitt will continue to tread as carefully Wednesday, and the E.P.A. spokesman, Jahan Wilcox, said in a statement that Mr. Pruitt remained focused on policy.

“From advocating to leave the Paris Accord, working to repeal Obama’s Clean Power Plan and Waters of the United States, declaring a war on lead and cleaning up toxic Superfund sites, Administrator Pruitt is focused on advancing President Trump’s agenda of regulatory certainty and environmental stewardship,” Mr. Wilcox said.

Where the president stands

President Trump has remained steadfast in his support for Mr. Pruitt, despite the arguments of several White House aides — including John F. Kelly, the president’s chief of staff — that the administrator should be fired. Asked last week if he still had confidence in Mr. Pruitt, the president replied, “I do.”