WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional Republicans are standing by Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt as he fends off a barrage of ethics troubles, a testament to their support for his agenda and reluctance to wade into a nasty confirmation fight over who might replace him.
While they flinch at repeated revelations about Pruitt's ethics and questionable spending on security and travel, Republicans say Pruitt has led administration efforts to ease federal regulations on manufacturing, mining and other industries.
Conservative groups also have weighed in on Pruitt's behalf, citing actions to roll back President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan, block new restrictions on a range of U.S. waterways and relax fuel-economy standards for cars and trucks.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul tweeted that Pruitt "is likely the bravest and most conservative member" of President Donald Trump's Cabinet, while Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said the EPA chief was being "bullied by the Obama groupies" in the news media and Congress.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, said Monday that Pruitt has accomplished key priorities as EPA head, mainly in reversing "punishing regulations" imposed under Obama. Barrasso said he saw the positive impact of Pruitt's actions late last month as he and Pruitt toured a Wyoming coal mine.
More than 100 conservatives, including the heads of the American Legislative Exchange Council and Conservative Action Project, along with former attorney general Edwin Meese III and former GOP Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, sent a letter Friday hailing Pruitt.
"President Trump campaigned on reducing Washington's bureaucracy, and Administrator Pruitt has been instrumental to that effort," they wrote.
Pruitt's leadership has helped Trump keep his promises on a number of issues important to conservatives, including rollback of the Clean Power Plan, Obama's signature effort to address climate change by restricting emissions from coal-fired power plants, the group wrote.
Barrasso acknowledged that "certain questions have been raised about internal operations" at EPA and Pruitt's actions, but said he will wait for a White House review before reaching a judgment.
The conservative bid to rally around Pruitt came as three Republican senators criticized him and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer called for Pruitt to resign or be fired amid expanded ethics investigations of his spending and possible perks he's received.
"If you want to drain the swamp, Mr. President, get rid of Mr. Pruitt," Schumer said.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., called Pruitt's behavior stupid and "juvenile" and urged him to "stop acting like a chucklehead, stop the unforced errors, stop leading with your chin."
"If you don't need to fly first class, don't," Kennedy said on CBS's "Face the Nation." ''Don't turn on the siren on your SUV just to watch people move over. You represent the president of the United States."
The Republican-led House Oversight committee confirmed Monday it has expanded its review of Pruitt's travel spending to address questions surrounding his bargain $50-a-night rental of a Capitol Hill condominium tied to a fossil fuels lobbyist. The Office of Government Ethics also has issued a letter to EPA demanding documents related to the condo rental.
The Associated Press reported Friday that the 20-member team tasked with providing day-and-night protection for Pruitt had racked up salary, overtime and travel expenses approaching $3 million.
Trump defended Pruitt in a tweet over the weekend, saying the EPA chief is "doing a great job." Trump called Pruitt's security spending "somewhat more" than his predecessor and said Pruitt had received death threats "because of his bold actions at EPA."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C, called the $50-a-night condo rental troubling. "The bottom line, this doesn't look good," he said on ABC's "This Week."
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the lone Republican to oppose Pruitt's confirmation, called him "the wrong person to head the EPA." She told CNN the "daily drip of accusations of excessive spending and ethical violations serve to further distract the agency from accomplishing its very important mission."
As Pruitt struggled to keep his job, another battle was brewing in the Senate, where Schumer vowed to oppose Trump's nomination of former coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as the EPA's No. 2 official. If confirmed as deputy administrator, Wheeler would be in line to replace Pruitt on an acting basis.
Wheeler, a former Senate GOP staffer, has spent his career "working to undermine or lobby against environmental protections he may soon oversee," Schumer said, adding that Wheeler "fits the pattern in the Trump administration of nominating an industry lobbyist to lead the agencies who are supposed to be a watchdog over those very industries."
The Senate is likely to vote on Wheeler's nomination this week as Congress returns from a two-week recess.