When Andrew Wheeler appeared before a Senate committee Wednesday, the acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency received a lot of questions, including about something unexpected: a bottle of soda.
It's "something that my staff found for sale -- of all places -- in the Senate cafeteria," said Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware.
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Wheeler, the EPA's acting director and a collector or Coca-Cola memorabilia, watched as Carper held up a soda bottle bearing his name. "This is your bottle," Carper said to laughter.
That type of relatively friendly interaction between a Democrat and Wheeler's predecessor, Scott Pruitt, seems like it would have been unthinkable. Pruitt resigned nearly a month ago under the cloud of multiple ethics and spending scandals, leaving Wheeler -- whose resume, his critics note, includes time as a coal lobbyist -- as acting administrator.
Wheeler fielded questions at Wednesday's hearing on a variety of decisions made under Pruitt, including waivers agricultural interests say were improperly granted to fuel companies, chemical hazard standards that advocates say ignore potential dangers and alleged slow-walking of public records requests.
He also publicly addressed potential conflicts of interest, a topic an industry publication E&E News raised in a report last week questioning whether Wheeler has violated his ethics pledge in at least three meetings.
"I have committed, under both the Trump ethics pledge and the ethics regulation, to follow all of the guidelines," Wheeler said.
"There is one article that mentioned that there was a former client that was in a couple of meetings that I attended. I want to clarify -- those weren't meetings, they were actually speeches," he said, adding that he "can't control the people that attend a public speech."
Several Democrats took the time to note that Wheeler is not Pruitt.
"I viewed your predecessor's tenure as one characterized by tawdry personal behavior in office, a desire to do damage to the agency he led, a flagrant absence of transactional integrity and horrible environmental policies," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island. "I see you as a remedy to three of those four."
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, noted her differences with Wheeler on environmental issues, but praised him for "reversing course" at EPA, particularly in the area of transparency.
The tough questions came from senators on both sides of the aisle -- including New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker, who pressed Wheeler on "the scaling back of our bipartisan chemical safety law," and Iowa Republican Joni Ernst, who criticized the biofuel decisions "that benefit refiners at the expense of farmers."
Carper foreshadowed the tough questions when presenting Wheeler with the Coca-Cola bottle at the start of the hearing.
"You'll probably need something stronger before you're finished," Carper said.