By Timothy Cama - 02-17-17 13:17 PM EST
The Senate voted Friday to confirm Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ushering in what are likely to be dramatic changes to the agency.
The 52-46 vote was almost along party lines. All Republicans except Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) voted for Pruitt, while all Democrats except Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) voted against him.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did not vote due to a military conference he is attending in Germany. Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) also did not vote.
Pruitt's confirmation came despite repeated pleas from Democrats to delay the vote due to ongoing litigation regarding emails that a liberal group had requested from the office of Pruitt, who is Oklahoma's attorney general - a position he will leave when he is sworn in as EPA administrator.
Republicans said Pruitt will bring much-needed change to an agency that exemplifies eight years of executive overreach by the administration of former President Obama.
"The nominee before us ... thinks it's time for the EPA to get back to the clean air and clean water business instead, and to do so with an appreciation for the complexity of our modern world," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor.
"He's exceptionally qualified. He's dedicated to environmental protection. And, as someone with state government experience, he understands the real-world consequences of EPA actions and knows that balance is the key to making policies that are sustainable over the long-term."
Democrats said Pruitt's record of animosity toward Obama's EPA - including filing more than a dozen lawsuits to block regulations - shows that he opposes the EPA's most important functions, and that he is too friendly to the fossil fuel industry.
"This Trump administration has nominated as administrator at the EPA a tool of the fossil fuel industry, a man who demonstrably will not take his government responsibilities seriously because he never has," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) "He has never taken EPA's responsibility seriously. He has done nothing but sue them."
Pruitt will be responsible for implementing an aggressive deregulatory campaign that Trump outlined on the campaign trail and that the GOP has long sought.
Trump promised to roll back Obama's entire climate change agenda, including the Clean Power Plan, which sets carbon dioxide limits for power plants. He also pledged to repeal the EPA's Clean Water Rule, which asserts federal power over small waterways like ponds and streams.
Trump said any new regulations will be judged on whether they benefit workers, and he would refocus the EPA's mission on clean air and water.
At his confirmation hearing, Pruitt promised to take seriously the EPA's mission, but also to improve cooperation with states and regulated parties.
"Regulators are supposed to make things regular, to fairly and equitably enforce the rules and not pick winners and losers," Pruitt told senators.
"A regulator should not be for or against any sector of our economy. Instead, a regulator ought to follow law in setting up the rules so that those who are regulated can plan, allocate resources to meet the standards, versus operating in a state of uncertainty and duress."
The senators also voted to shoot down a last-minute plea by Democrats to delay the vote until Pruitt's emails could be released and reviewed.
A state judge ruled late Thursday that Pruitt's office has to release what could be thousands of emails between him or his staff and various fossil fuel and conservative interests, records that the Center for Media and Democracy requested more than two years ago.
Democrats unsuccessfully sought to delay the Pruitt vote until at least after Tuesday, when the emails are due to be released, so that senators could see them.
"We don't have all of the information that we need to make this important decision," said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) "We don't have all of the facts that we need to have and that's because as attorney general of Oklahoma, he kept his information controlled and unavailable to the Senators in this chamber and unavailable to the citizens of America."
The delay would have pushed Pruitt's vote to Feb. 27 at the earliest, due to a coming Senate recess.
McConnell slammed the pleas as politically-motivated delay tactics, like when the Democrats boycotted Pruitt's committee vote.
"Over the past several weeks we've seen a historic level of obstruction from our democratic colleagues on the president's cabinet," he said. "Truly historic, unprecedented, and harmful obstruction. Pointless obstruction ... a collection of futile gestures."
Pruitt is set to be sworn in at 5 p.m.
- Devin Henry contributed.