The Senate confirmed Gina McCarthy as U.S. EPA's top air official today after her nomination was held up for a month by Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso over concerns about the Obama administration's climate policies.

McCarthy, President Obama's pick to serve as assistant administrator of EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, was approved this morning by a voice vote.

Barrasso released his procedural "hold" on McCarthy late last month, but he voiced his lingering concerns today as the Senate prepared to vote on her nomination.

The Wyoming senator said McCarthy had failed to appropriately respond to questions about how EPA plans to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Barrasso said his concerns stemmed from the agency's recent release of its proposed "endangerment" finding, which states that greenhouse gases threaten public health and welfare. The finding is expected to trigger broad industry regulations if finalized.

"I have nothing personal against the nominee; I simply want to have answers to questions" about EPA's climate regulations, Barrasso said on the Senate floor.

Barrasso warned that widespread litigation would aim to force EPA to regulate entities like farms, hospitals and nursing homes, and could hurt businesses and consumers amid the economic downturn. "The economic consequences of this ticking time bomb will be devastating," Barrasso said.

EPA officials and environmental attorneys have consistently said that the agency would have the authority to limit the scope of Clean Air Act regulations to affect only major sources like power plants and other large emitters.

Barrasso suggested that mounting political pressure to enforce global warming policies is causing lawmakers to rush into climate regulations and legislation without properly evaluating the consequences. He pointed to an unsigned interagency memo sent to EPA by the White House Office of Management and Budget in April, which laid out serious concerns about the possible damaging economic effects of the agency's proposed endangerment finding (Greenwire, May 14).

He also criticized the rush toward finalizing a domestic global warming bill before the international climate negotiations slated to take place this December in Copenhagen without having a better understanding of potential economic impacts.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, offered his support for McCarthy's confirmation and said he expected EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to support legislative efforts to limit the scope of EPA climate regulations.

"I supported Regina McCarthy's nomination today because I think she possesses the knowledge, experience, and temperament to oversee a very important office at EPA," Inhofe said in a statement.

"I supported Sen. Barrasso's hold on her nomination because we needed a greater understanding of how EPA will handle greenhouse gas regulation under the Clean Air Act -- particularly how such regulation would affect thousands of small businesses across the country," Inhofe added. "In a letter to me, Administrator Jackson agreed that the Clean Air Act is a flawed mechanism for addressing global warming. She also agreed that the Act lacks statutory flexibility in important areas, which could be problematic for small businesses, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and other small sources."

Democrats hail confirmation

Senate Democrats, however, applauded McCarthy's confirmation and said they look forward to working with her on climate regulations as well as policies to curb conventional air pollutants.

"I am disappointed that we had a colleague of ours hold her nomination up," said Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "She is well-qualified; she has the ability to work with communities and industry."

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee, said McCarthy's experience as a Northeastern air regulator would come in handy as she tackles a series of controversial Bush-era clean air regulations that have been sent back to the agency by federal courts.

"Gina McCarthy takes office not long after every major Bush administration clean air regulation has been thrown out by the courts," Carper said in a statement. "As a result, the EPA must now write several new major clean air regulations in a short amount of time.

"Although Ms. McCarthy has a tough road ahead, her experience and achievements prove she will rise to the challenge. She has shown true leadership in Connecticut and Massachusetts implementing a multi-pollutant approach to clean up the air in those states."

McCarthy joins EPA after serving as commissioner at the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection since 2004. Before that, she spent 25 years working on environmental issues in Massachusetts in a variety of positions at the state and local levels.

She becomes the first head of EPA's air office to receive Senate confirmation since President George W. Bush appointed Jeff Holmstead to the job in 2001. Holmstead -- chief architect of the Bush administration's "Clear Skies" legislation for power plants -- resigned in 2005 after a controversial tenure. Bush's next appointment was stalled in the face of intense resistance from Senate Democrats.