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Virginia Senate panel votes down former Trump EPA chief Wheeler, fight not over for Youngkin Cabinet pick

A key committee in Virginia’s Democratic-majority state Senate has removed former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Andrew Wheeler, GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s nominee for secretary of natural and historic resources, from a list of Cabinet nominees, signaling the legislature may reject a state Cabinet nominee for the first time in 16 years.

The state Senate’s Committee on Privileges and Elections voted in a party-line 9-6 vote to remove Wheeler from the list of nominees, Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D) confirmed on Twitter. “Virginia needs a SNHR [secretary of natural and historic resources] dedicated to addressing the very serious issues of environmental protection and climate change.”

Wheeler’s nomination raised the ire of environmental activists, who noted his history of rolling back environmental regulations under the Trump administration. Democrats, who hold a two-seat majority in the state Senate, suggested they would block his nomination soon after the news broke.

This would make Wheeler the first Cabinet pick rejected in the state since 2006, when the legislature rejected Daniel LeBlanc, then-Gov. Tim Kaine’s (D) nominee for secretary of the commonwealth.

The removal of Wheeler’s name does not by itself defeat the nomination. The former EPA chief could be added to the list again via a floor amendment during a full Senate vote. However, the vote suggests that Wheeler did not win state Democrats over last week in a largely cordial hearing, during which he emphasized his belief in climate change and said his environmental record has been distorted by the press.

If Wheeler receives a single Democratic vote, Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears (R) would have the power to break the tie in his favor. State Sen. Joe Morrissey (D) on Friday told The Hill that he felt Wheeler “acquitted himself well” during questioning. Morrissey, who has broken with the majority in the past, said he would consult with experts in the weeks ahead before making a decision.