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When Scott Pruitt returns to Capitol Hill on Thursday, he will find few friends ready to greet him — and an audience of one waiting to determine his fate.

Republicans say they aren’t going to give the Environmental Protection Agency chief a free pass on accusations of lavish spending, a sweetheart condo lease and luxe air travel during a pair of high-stakes hearings. Since Pruitt’s previous appearance on Capitol Hill in January, he has faced an avalanche of damaging headlines and investigations that have alienated much of the White House and raised questions about his future leading the agency.


President Donald Trump has so far stuck by Pruitt. But the biggest test for the media-obsessed president may be how Pruitt fares in front of the cameras — only three weeks after he drew poor reviews for a combative interview with Fox News’ Ed Henry.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said Pruitt will receive a “cordial reception, but he’s got some tough questions to answer.”

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), whose subcommittee will be Pruitt’s first stop Thursday, said the administrator should expect a “cool” reception from Republicans — who still strongly support his work to pare back EPA rules.

“It could be pretty painful, but when you accept the position of a senior administrator in a federal agency you’ve got to expect [that],” Shimkus, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Environment Subcommittee, told Politico. “You’ve just to grin and bear it and get through it.”

Pruitt has few allies left in the White House, apart from the president himself. Senior administration aides characterized the hearings as potential make-or-break moments for Pruitt but said it’s ultimately up to the president as to whether the White House wants to tolerate Pruitt’s bad press.

Trump is largely keeping Pruitt around because he appreciates Pruitt’s hard-charging agenda and because the White House does not want to go through another bruising confirmation battle over another Republican to lead EPA, according to senior administration officials and Republicans close to the White House. Already the White House expended great political energy this week on its pick for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, a former congressman whom the White House views as eminently qualified but who is barely expected to squeak through the Senate confirmation process.

Most important, the president fears that dumping Pruitt would anger conservatives.

“The president is always nervous about offending his base, and Pruitt has real support in the base,” said one Republican close to the White House. “If that base diminishes, he does not have a chance of being reelected. He generally likes what Pruitt is doing over there, but he has no relationship with Pruitt of any note. He could get someone else.”

When asked at the White House briefing on Wednesday about Pruitt’s spending and potential ethical violations, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders would only say: “We are evaluating these concerns, and we expect the EPA administrator to answer for them.”

Pruitt’s waning support among White House aides has been months in the making. And at this point, many administration officials say they are tired of the terrible headlines and consider the allegations about Pruitt a nonstop swirl of distractions. It’s not just Pruitt’s handling of the questions that has irked White House officials but the facts themselves about the way he’s led the EPA and run his own staff.

Over the past year, Pruitt has also alienated members of the communications team, National Economic Council, and Cabinet Affairs in various fights over policy like the Paris climate deal, messaging over policy rollouts, and spending decisions at the EPA. Another Republican close to the White House said Pruitt has earned a reputation among White House aides as “high maintenance.”

The White House was not involved in helping to prepare Pruitt for the two Hill hearings on Thursday.

Shimkus predicted the toughest questions would come from the other side of the aisle.

"We need to make sure that we understand and recognize the valid, valid concerns that are out there on policy and administrative activity," he said. "But I don't think we'll be gouging his eyes out either — I think we'll have other folks that'll do that."

Some Pruitt supporters say he should be judged on his overall tenure.

“It should be based on his past performance, not necessarily standing in front of a microphone,” House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said. Bishop's committee does not have jurisdiction over EPA, but he has been a strong supporter of Pruitt's policy goals.

In his opening statement released ahead of the hearing, Pruitt will sidestep any discussion of the latest controversies, instead focusing on policy goals like Superfund cleanups and working more closely with states. "I will focus on key objectives to improve air quality, provide for clean and safe water, revitalize land and prevent contamination, ensure the safety of chemicals in the marketplace, assure compliance with the law, and improve efficiency and effectiveness," Pruitt will say in his prepared remarks.

Democrats are expected to tie the scandals facing Pruitt to his aggressive deregulatory push and proposal to slash EPA's budget by more than a quarter — which they see as just as worrisome as his alleged ethical improprieties. Multiple aides said there’s such strong interest in the session that committee Democrats not on the Environment Subcommittee plan to participate, which does not require signoff from the majority.

"There's a confluence of concerns here that I think the Democrats are going to want to get answers to," Rep. Paul Tonko of New York, top Democrat on the panel, told POLITICO. "We were concerned yesterday, we're concerned today and we'll be concerned tomorrow if he's there."

There will be no shortage of things to ask him about, including the more than $105,000 the agency has spent on his first-class flights, lavish spending on a $43,000 soundproof phone booth and round-the-clock security, a cushy $50-per-night condo lease from a Washington lobbyist who personally met with Pruitt to discuss the agency’s Chesapeake Bay work, and a trip to Morocco in December on which he spent time promoting liquefied natural gas exports — a topic that isn’t part of his agency’s portfolio. Pruitt is also facing scrutiny over the significant pay raises the agency gave to a handful of his longtime aides from Oklahoma despite the White House’s objections.

Federal watchdogs, the agency’s inspector general, congressional investigators and the White House have launched more than a dozen investigations into various aspects of Pruitt’s conduct.

But Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the longest-serving member of Energy and Commerce, said Pruitt's ethics issues are "not the purpose of the hearing" and suggested many Republicans would come to the administrator's defense. However, he said the panel's GOP members have not met in advance to plot strategy.

"He’s had a lot of death threats. I don’t have a problem with his security costs," Barton said Wednesday. "I don’t really have a major problem with his telecommunications setup. It’s a difficult job to be the EPA administrator when you’re a Republican."

Still, signs are increasing of weariness toward Pruitt among congressional Republicans. Three senior Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Republicans, including his staunch ally Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), called for hearings into Pruitt’s behavior earlier this week. Four House Republicans have called for his resignation. And EPW Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said he has “serious questions” about Pruitt’s spending and pledged to send additional oversight letters.

“He’ll need to acquit himself well,” Sen. John Thune, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, said when asked about how important the sessions will be for Pruitt’s future in the administration.

An aide to Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota, top Democrat on the House Appropriations Interior and Environment Subcommittee, where Pruitt will appear Thursday afternoon, told POLITICO their hearing would likely focus more on Pruitt’s proposed cuts to nearly a quarter of the agency’s budget and regulatory rollbacks.

“I expect the E&C hearing will have a greater focus on the ethical concerns surrounding Pruitt,” the aide said.

Some Democrats on Energy and Commerce acknowledge Pruitt has in the past performed well in congressional hearings, which they said could allow him to respond to some of the charges.

"If Mr. Trump is going to look for a good performance, I bet he'll put up a great performance," said Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), another member of the subpanel. "But if he doesn't address the substance of the ethical and environmental challenges, I hope that they would think about finding someone else."

Other Democrats think Pruitt’s main goal will be to avoid a major gaffe but they don’t see any way he will emerge from the hearing in a significantly strengthened position.

“One or two of these transgressions would be survivable but there are so many scandals that it’s really hard for me to imagine that Republicans want to lower the bar this much,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), an outspoken Pruitt critic. “It is actually beyond me why they’re sticking by him.”