Republican praise hasn't ended Obama pick's 899-day wait for confirmation

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WASHINGTON — During the 899 days he has waited for the Senate to vote on his nomination to a top job at the EPA, Ken Kopocis has amassed compliments from Senate Republicans and a predecessor.

What that hasn't gotten him is a confirmation vote.

Kopocis, once a Senate aide, is the longest-delayed of President Obama's 231 nominees to cabinet agencies, independent boards and the judiciary who await Senate action, according to White House data. The delays were cited by Senate Democrats when they voted Nov. 21 to end filibusters of such nominations, clearing the way for confirmation without Republican votes.

Votes to approve Kopocis and the others will give them the ability to influence policymaking across the federal government. Kopocis has been nominated to be the assistant administrator for the EPA's office of water, which is charged with implementing the Clean Water Act, among other things. Other nominees will shape financial regulations mandated by legislation passed since the recession, or, in the case of an opening for the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, in overseeing aid to troubled borrowers.

Nominees to judgeships could also exert authority over challenges to Obama policies.

The delays for Kopocis, who's working as an adviser to the Environmental Protection Agency while awaiting confirmation, show that the issues often aren't personal.

"It's the EPA and the water office; it isn't him," Luke Bolar, a spokesman for Louisiana Senator David Vitter, the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said. "There are a number of issues within the EPA water office."

EPA's water policy has been troubling to Republicans, farmers, real-estate agents and mining companies. Under Obama, the EPA proposed guidelines that critics said would expand their permitting jurisdiction over more water bodies, including some that are streams that don't flow all year.

For Kopocis, an end to the wait may come soon: Vitter's staff members are talking with those from the EPA this week. "I think we're close to some breakthrough," Bolar said.

Ben Grumbles, who served in the EPA job under Republican President George W. Bush, said Kopocis is "a great choice" to head that office.

"He is one of the most qualified candidates I can imagine," Grumbles, president of the U.S. Water Alliance, said in an interview. "He's a professional and knows the law."

Vitter also held up the nomination because of the EPA's intervention into reviewing a potential mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. of Vancouver is seeking to develop copper there.

"Mr. Kopocis is already engaged in what we all believe is a troubling expansion of EPA regulatory authority," Vitter said at a hearing in July.

Other Republican critics praised Kopocis.

"Ken, I've worked with you for a long time. I feel like, in fact, a lot of the times you were here, I couldn't remember whether you were on our staff or her staff," Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe said at that hearing, referring to Senate Environment and Public Works Democratic Chairman Barbara Boxer of California. "We worked very closely together in the past, even though philosophically we have a few areas where we're not going to be together."

Of the Obama nominees pending in the Senate, 53 are to federal judgeships, 81 are candidates for cabinet agencies and 13 are to jobs at independent agencies such as the Chemical Safety Board.

Republicans call the change the most dangerous revision of Senate processes in more than two centuries, and warned that Obama is trying to accomplish via government regulation what can't be done via legislation.

"They want to pack the court so that he can make sure he doesn't get overruled on a lot of unconstitutional things he's trying to do," Iowa Republican Charles Grassley said in an interview Nov. 22, referring to the president.

Even without a filibuster, the White House and committee process is long and tortured, said Paul Light, a professor of presidential studies at New York University.

"The process is already a nightmare and the Senate's done nothing to improve the process for nominees," Light said in an interview. From a nominee's point of view, "it's expensive, it's embarrassing, it's a form of hazing and abusive."

Changing the delaying tactic known as the filibuster "will make it a little bit better," Light said.