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Christie Whitman Starts to Get Some Respect


When Jack Welch speaks, the White House--any White House--usually listens. So it came as a shock when Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman announced on Aug. 1 that General Electric Co. (GE) would be responsible for the biggest dredging project in U.S. history. Despite the vociferous objections of GE Chief Executive Welch, a Bush campaign contributor, the EPA received White House approval to order the estimated $460 million cleanup of the Hudson River.

The decision was even more shocking in that it was a rare public victory for Whitman, the greenest Bushie in town. It also signaled that after having been bashed for months on issues ranging from arsenic in drinking water to global warming, the President needs to make a peace offering to his alienated pro-environment supporters. While few think the White House will now be repainted green, the Hudson plan demonstrates that industry isn't going to get everything it wants from Bush.

Republican Administrations seem to have two models for the EPA job. One is the revenge-of-the-Right model; the other is the quiet moderate. The selection of Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey and a favorite of GOP centrists, was supposed to send a message to moderates that they had a place at the Bush Cabinet table.

Trouble is, in the Administration's early days, Whitman's place seemed to be cleaning up the mess left by others. After losing internal policy battles to Vice-President Dick Cheney and chief economic adviser Lawrence B. Lindsey, Whitman seemed ineffectual--though that's not the way she sees it. "I dealt with these issues as governor--you don't make anybody happy," she told BusinessWeek. "This isn't a place for someone who has big political ambitions."

Whitman's staying power will be tested in coming months, when she will help make decisions on issues of vital importance to business. Topping the list is the EPA's interpretation of a part of the Clean Air Act called "new source review," which requires companies to get a permit from the agency and meet tough emissions standards when they make "major modifications" to a plant. Utilities say the Clinton Administration's strict interpretation stifled innovation and efficiency, leading to power shortages. The Clinton EPA cited eight big utilities for violations--after approving plant changes--and the Justice Dept. sued for billions of dollars in penalties.

"SLEEPLESS NIGHTS." As governor, Whitman joined the federal lawsuits, since emissions from Midwestern plants blow east. But insiders say the White House has already decided to ease the Clinton policy, which would reverse her stand. "She must be having some sleepless nights," says Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, whose state is also suing.

Equally tricky will be the upcoming design of the White House global warming policy. After Bush repudiated the Kyoto Protocol to combat carbon dioxide emissions, the President ordered Cabinet members, including Whitman, to draft an alternative that would ease criticism from European allies.

In the meantime, Whitman continues to court enviros on some issues. Among them: endorsing sulfur reductions in diesel fuel, backing stricter lead-reporting rules, and creating a plan to control haze in national parks. "As far as Bush Republicans go, Whitman is the best the environmental community could have hoped for," says National Environmental Trust Vice-President John Stanton.

As the White House prepares a campaign to woo moderate voters, Whitman's presence will be good politics for Bush. Whether it's good politics for Whitman is another story. On Aug. 2, Washington Correspondent Laura Cohn talked with Christine Todd Whitman about her enforcement philosophy and other topics.

On cutting the enforcement budget:

We get things done much faster if we don't have to end up in court enforcing. You tend to get better results when businesses do it voluntarily.... It shouldn't be up to us to micromanage a business. I don't measure success by how many enforcement actions we have. When I left [as governor of] New Jersey, our fines were down, but the air was cleaner, the land was better protected, and the water was cleaner.

On Bush reversing his campaign pledge to reduce CO2 emissions after she had called it an Administration priority:

That was never about me. The President admitted he had changed his policy. I have no problem with that. From my perspective, everybody was making a bigger deal of it than it was.

On her decision to proceed with a Clinton plan to force GE to dredge PCB pollution from the Hudson River:

It came down to looking at the science. As a governor, I had made up my mind that PCBs were bad. There was no question in my mind.

On the politics of the environment:

We always knew it would be a big issue.... It's a partisan atmosphere here. It's also the mind-set that people from Texas can't be "pro" the environment.

On running for senator from New Jersey:

Absolutely not.


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