WASHINGTON — The head of the Environmental Protection Agency refused to say Tuesday whether he had any specific discussions with President Bush that would have caused him to reverse his agency's position and deny a waiver California needed to move ahead with stringent auto emission standards.
The appearance of EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee came a day after the panel's Democrats released a report saying Johnson was willing to go along with California's Clean Air Act waiver until he was told by the White House that it didn't support that decision.
The committee added more fuel to the firestorm over White House manipulation of EPA decisions in a new report on last-minute modification of a recent ozone rule, even though the initial proposal had the unanimous support aof gency scientists. Ozone is a primary ingredient of smog.
But Johnson resolutely insisted that all decisions were made by him after considering the recommendations and views of agency scientists, the public and the White House. He was repeatedly asked whether he had met with the president about the issues and he declined to directly answer, saying only that he regularly meets with the president over a wide range of issues.
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"It would not be appropriate for me to get into discussions I had with the executive branch," Johnson said, saying it is important that agency heads have the opportunity to discuss matters privately with the president and other White House officials.
Under questioning by Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., who was concerned about whether automakers worked through Vice President Dick Cheney to press their opposition to the California waiver, Johnson was as specific as he ever got at the hearing.
"I don't recall any" pressure from Cheney, Johnson said.
Frustrated Democrats were irate.
"You've become a figurehead," charged the panel's chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.
Republicans rallied to Johnson's defense.
Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., cited interference in EPA decisions by the Clinton White House when California was seeking a waiver allowing it to forego use of the gasoline additive MTBE, now no longer used, and ethanol, which the state had said could add to air pollution.
"I was outraged at the Clinton administration," Bilbray said. "No one administration has a monopoly at that."