All of Gov. Glenn Youngkin's Cabinet nominees secured final legislative approval Wednesday except for Andrew Wheeler, the former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator whose appointment has so far been blocked by Democrats.
Without debate, the Republican-controlled House of Delegates approved a resolution confirming Youngkin's other nominees. Wheeler, who was tapped to serve as secretary of natural and historic resources, had been removed from the list before the measure passed the Democrat-controlled Senate in February.
However, the vote isn't necessarily the end of the line for the fight, which has broadened to a partisan spat involving other appointments subject to legislative approval.
In retaliation for Wheeler's rejection, House Republicans last month refused to confirm about a dozen people who had been appointed to various boards and commissions by the previous Democratic governor, Ralph Northam. They have also let expire the appointment of a Northam nominee to the powerful State Corporation Commission, which regulates railroads, public utilities, insurance and other business interests.
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With less than two weeks until lawmakers are scheduled to wrap up the year's regular session, it remained unclear what else might be drawn into the back-and-forth or how it would be resolved.
“There’s still a lot of things in play,” Sen. Creigh Deeds said this week.
Deeds said his caucus had asked the Youngkin administration to restore the 11 Northam appointees who had been removed, suggesting that otherwise Senate Democrats would proceed to block Youngkin's picks moving forward.
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“Now, there may be ways to get around that. There may be ways for us to discuss some of those things. So there's a whole lot of other ... appointments that we're still in conversation about," he said.
Lawmakers still need to deal with judicial elections, including filling two spots on the Supreme Court of Virginia, in addition to negotiating the state budget and other bills heading to conference committees.
As for Wheeler, the governor's spokeswoman said Youngkin “sincerely hopes there is a path forward and remains open to further conversations.”
"The General Assembly has until they adjourn sine die to reconsider their decision to reject the most qualified Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources in many years,” spokeswoman Macaulay Porter wrote in an email.
The Virginia League of Conservation Voters urged Youngkin to find a “suitable replacement.”
“It was clear from the start that Andrew Wheeler was not a pragmatic pick to lead Virginia’s environmental agencies,” Michael Town, the group's executive director, said in a statement. “His record of working for corporate polluters and undermining environmental laws time after time made him unfit for this post, and we are glad the legislature, too, came to this conclusion.”
Wheeler is an attorney and former coal lobbyist who led the EPA during the latter half of former President Donald Trump's administration, overseeing the rollbacks of environmental protections implemented under former President Barack Obama.
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.
Absent securing approval for the Cabinet role, Youngkin could ask Wheeler to serve in his administration in another position.