The counter on ticked over to 145 on Tuesday morning, as environmentalists marked the number of days that the Environmental Protection Agency has been without an administrator.

In a Washington where gridlock has become the default mode, President Barack Obama’s nomination of Gina McCarthy to head the EPA has become about as toxic as mercury in the air.

That poses a challenge for Mr Obama, who last month laid out an ambitious three-part plan to deal with climate change using the power of his office, defying congressional inaction on the issue. Ms McCarthy, as head of the EPA, would become the standard-bearer of that plan.

“The woman that I’ve chosen to head up the EPA, Gina McCarthy, she’s terrific,” Mr Obama said last month while announcing the plan. “The Senate should confirm her without any further obstruction or delay.”

Republicans, who are almost unanimously opposed to Mr Obama’s efforts to tackle climate change through regulation, have held up Ms McCarthy’s nomination for almost five months – making this the longest stretch on record that the environmental agency has been without a leader.

The Senate is expected to vote on Ms McCarthy’s nomination before it starts its summer recess on August 5, although majority leader Harry Reid’s office is staying mum about when the vote might be held. They are trying to shore up support for Ms McCarthy behind closed doors and cool down some of the heated rhetoric that has surrounded the nomination, according to people close to the administration.

But if that fails, Mr Reid could use Republican threats to block Ms McCarthy’s nomination – and that of the other two pending nominees, Thomas Perez for labour secretary and Richard Cordray for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – to force a vote on changing the Senate’s rules. They require 60 votes, rather than a simple majority of 51, to break a filibuster.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, has warned that doing so would create an “irresistible” precedent for Republicans if they take control of the upper chamber in next year’s congressional elections.

But Republicans’ objections to Ms McCarthy have little, if anything, to do with the nominee herself.

“It’s not about her, it’s about the agency,” says Christie Todd Whitman, a former Republican governor of New Jersey and EPA administrator under President George W Bush.

A Boston native, Ms McCarthy is an environmental scientist and veteran civil servant who has worked under five Republican governors – including Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for president last year, while he led Massachusetts.

Ms McCarthy has been assistant administrator of the EPA, heading the clean air division since 2009, when she was confirmed by a cross-party majority in the Senate.

But the division has become one of the most contentious parts of the EPA as almost all the Obama administration’s action on climate change has been through regulation of emissions, from the mercury and carbon spewed out by industry to the exhausts from cars.

Environmentalists have launched campaigns urging sceptical Republican senators to allow Ms McCarthy to be confirmed, and Ms Whitman said her party should not hold Ms McCarthy hostage to politics.

“Republicans lost the [presidential] election and they have to realise that this is the president’s choice of nominee,” she said. “They can go after the president, but Gina McCarthy should get an up-and-down vote.”

Ms McCarthy’s first task would be to implement Mr Obama’s strategy for tackling climate change through regulation, chiefly his goal of cutting US carbon pollution by reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The president last month outlined a plan to direct the EPA to establish carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants.

It still has to finalise a rule on new coal-fired stations, announced last year, and to unveil the requirements that existing sites must meet. Both plans are fiercely opposed by the coal industry.

Ms Whitman called Mr Obama’s plan a “very reasonable approach”. “It should appeal to Republicans because it’s very economy-based, it’s tackling climate change as a challenge to growth,” she said.

Collin O’Mara, the environment secretary in Delaware who has worked with Ms McCarthy, says she has a record of implementing market-based programmes such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative operating in the northeast, encompassing both Delaware and Massachusetts.

“Gina is among the most creative regulators I’ve ever met,” Mr O’Mara said. “She likes more market-based programmes and is agnostic about how reductions are achieved.”

But many Republicans view the EPA as the embodiment of all that they detest about the Obama administration: an emphasis on what they call “job-killing” regulations.

John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming who says he will vote against Ms McCarthy’s nomination in the Senate, said Mr Obama had only made things more difficult by staking out such a public position on climate change last month.

“The president made a decision to give this speech,” he told reporters after Mr Obama’s address, “and I think it has an impact on her nomination.”

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