Senators Approve Leavitt to Head EPA

Abandoning threats to filibuster President Bush's nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, several Democrats joined Republican senators Tuesday to confirm Michael O. Leavitt as the agency's new administator.

The Senate voted overwhelmingly 88 to eight to approve Leavitt, who was nominated by Bush on Aug. 11.

Bush said he was very pleased with the decision.

"Governor Leavitt is an exceptional leader who shares my commitment to reaching out across partisan lines to get things done. I know he will work closely with me to build upon my administration's initiatives to make our air and water cleaner, protect the land, and use technology to improve our environment while our economy grows and creates jobs," Bush said in a statement.

Senators confirmed the Utah governor one day after Democrats, led by Sen. Hillary Clinton (search), D-N.Y., said they were satisfied the Bush administration will meet with them to address concerns over air quality in New York City following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and other pressing environmental questions.

Leavitt, who is in his third term as governor of Utah and has a long history of tackling environmental issues as part of the Western Governors Association, was chosen to replace outgoing administrator Christine Todd Whitman (search), who left in July after a stormy two-and-a-half year tenure at the EPA.

Facing several questions about his positions on air pollution and his record in Utah, Leavitt promised to promote "a higher and more meaningful level of cooperation and the application of new technologies" to protect the nation's environment.

Leavitt's nomination was challenged by Clinton and five other Democrats, three of whom are running for president. The lawmakers' objections were not based on his qualifications, but over long-running concerns by environmentalists over how the agency is run and whether the administration is trying to roll back regulations enacted during the previous decade.

Clinton also has been feuding with the White House over whether the EPA was influenced to make reassuring though unfounded statements about New York City's air quality after the World Trade Center collapsed.

Throughout the day on Monday, senators took to the floor to talk about Leavitt, whose supporters say is a moderate consensus builder who believes in balancing the needs of business with stewardship of the Earth.  

"If the president's critics on the environment are truly committed to protecting and preserving it, they should have put aside their political agenda and allow the Senate to vote on Governor Leavitt's nomination. Obstruction won't clean the air, protect our rivers or streams or preserve our environment for future generations," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

But Leavitt's opponents said they are worried that his close relationship with the president as well as his background, which they contend would seemingly favor oil and gas exploration in the West, will make him Bush's lackey.

"I am hopeful that Governor Leavitt will have much luck, more luck than Governor Whitman did with the White House. The EPA needs to be an independent agency as Congress and President Nixon intended. It cannot be a rubber stamp for a polluter's lobbyist and should not be a political lapdog for the White House," said Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt.

The threatened filibuster evaporated 15 minutes before a Monday evening vote was scheduled by Republican leaders to determine whether they had the support to overcome it.

That's when Clinton came to the Senate floor and said the Bush administration had agreed to work with her on her concerns — whether workers at Ground Zero had been adequately informed of the dangers from smoke and dust, and whether that dust had presented a health hazard to neighbors of the World Trade Center.

"I'm pleased we've made this progress with the White House ... and I hope their cooperation is an indication of a new attitude," Clinton said, adding that the administration had promised to take greater measures to protect affected New York City residents.

The other senators then agreed to lift their objections to Leavitt's nomination.

The final vote on Leavitt took place after an hour of morning debate. As EPA chief, Leavitt will work on major issues confronting the Bush administration, including implementation of new Clean Air Act (search) rules, which are the subject of a multi-state lawsuit, as well as energy and land priorities. 

Fox News' Brian Wilson contributed to this report.