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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Senate Democrats, seizing on an opportunity to try to squeeze information from the Bush administration, boycotted a meeting Wednesday and forced a two-week delay in voting to fill the top job at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Eight Democrats refused to attend the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee meeting to vote on President Bush's nomination of Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt as EPA administrator.
Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., who formerly chaired the committee and frequently sides with Democrats on environmental issues, said he and the Democrats simply wanted information on environmental policies that the administration and EPA have refused to share since 2001.
"It has nothing to do with the qualifications of Leavitt," Jeffords said, adding he eventually would vote to confirm Leavitt as EPA chief. "This is an opportunity we have to take. ... We intend to use the leverage to get the answers we want."
Jeffords said he and several Democratic committee members are still being denied several information requests they made two years ago about the changes EPA and the White House were considering making to the Clean Air Act's "New Source Review" program. The Bush administration has since eased the air pollution rules for industrial plants when they modernize.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who chairs the committee, and other Republican members said the boycott clearly was more about the 2004 election. He said Democrats submitted nearly 400 questions for Leavitt, compared with 67 that Republicans in 1993 asked of then-President Clinton's EPA nominee, Carol Browner, who was confirmed to the job and held it eight years.
"I think the presidential year started early this time around," Inhofe said. "We have three committee members running for president, I'm sure that's the reason this is going around."
Two committee members, Sens. Bob Graham, D-Fla., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., are vying for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., is not running, but has often been mentioned as a potential contender.
Under Senate rules, 10 members of the 19-member committee must be present to have a vote and two of them must be from the minority.
Inhofe scheduled a vote on Leavitt for Oct. 14, nine weeks after Bush picked Leavitt to become the next EPA administrator.
A committee vote would set up a Senate fight over Leavitt based on Democrats' complaints about Bush administration environment policies.
Clinton, Lieberman and two other senators who are Democratic presidential contenders -- Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina -- have also threatened to block a vote on the Senate floor once Leavitt's confirmation clears the committee.
The committee's eight Democrats, along with Jeffords, wrote Inhofe on Tuesday to ask for the two-week delay of the committee vote.
They complained they needed more time to consider Leavitt's written explanations of his views, some of which they felt were incomplete.
"As is Senate custom, committee members expect full responses to their questions," they wrote. Attempts to get a response from Inhofe's office Tuesday night were unsuccessful.
The letter requesting the delay was signed by Jeffords, Clinton, Graham, Lieberman and Democratic Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Harry Reid of Nevada, Barbara Boxer of California, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Thomas Carper of Delaware.
Even if the nomination emerges from the committee, Clinton said Tuesday she still will block Leavitt's nomination from being taken up by the full Senate unless the White House reveals who directed the EPA to prematurely assure New Yorkers that air pollution from the World Trade Center rubble posed no health threat.
Clinton, who met Tuesday with James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, to discuss the Leavitt nomination, said it was her "strong belief that we must have a bond of trust between our government and our citizens when it comes to such critical issues as the threat of terrorism and the health and safety consequences."
Despite their opposition to Bush's policies on the environment, Jeffords and several of the committee's Democrats indicated they eventually will support Bush's choice of Leavitt, a three-term governor and former chairman of the National Governors Association, to succeed former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman as EPA administrator.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)