Senate panel votes down Wheeler nomination; fight not over

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Former EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, who has been nominated by Gov. Youngkin to be the Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources, testifies before the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources at the Capitol Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. – A Democrat-controlled committee in the Virginia Senate voted Tuesday against including former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler in the new Republican governor's Cabinet, though the move is likely not the final say on the matter.

On a 9-6 party-line vote, the committee stripped Wheeler — Gov. Glenn Youngkin's pick for secretary of natural and historic resources — from a resolution approving the governor's other Cabinet appointees. The panel then advanced the resolution, taking no issue with anyone else.

Wheeler's appointment could ultimately prevail if any Democrat on the narrowly divided Senate floor joined with Republicans to add his name back to the resolution.

At least one Democrat, Joe Morrissey, has previously indicated he is open to backing Wheeler. Morrissey was not a member of the panel that voted Tuesday, and he didn't respond to messages seeking comment.

The nomination of Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who led the EPA during the administration of former President Donald Trump and oversaw rollbacks of environmental protections implemented under former President Barack Obama's administration, sparked an immediate backlash from conservation groups. Former EPA workers and a union representing current agency staff have both urged lawmakers to vote against Wheeler, while some former colleagues of Wheeler's also weighed in, supporting him.

The Democratic Party of Virginia noted that the rejection of a Cabinet secretary by lawmakers is a rarity that last happened in 2006.

“Today, Democrats delivered another huge blow to Governor Youngkin and his efforts to implement his dangerous agenda by taking the first steps to reject his far-right, Trump-selected Cabinet nominee for Secretary of Natural Resources,” said party spokesperson Gianni Snidle.

Macaulay Porter, a Youngkin spokesperson, said the governor was "disappointed that the committee put partisan politics over the selection of a highly qualified individual who would prioritize cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and James River.”