By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's energy and environment team took two steps forward on Thursday after the U.S. Senate confirmed Ernest Moniz as energy secretary and a committee cleared Gina McCarthy to get a full Senate vote to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
After a 97-0 vote in favor, Moniz, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will take the helm of the department poised to issue a series of decisions on the future of U.S. natural gas exports and to guide the country's energy investments.
Obama praised Moniz's confirmation and highlighted his expertise in a wide range of energy sources that will help the administration increase both energy and nuclear security.
"He also shares my conviction that the United States must lead the world in developing more sustainable sources of energy that create new jobs and new industries, and in responding to the threat of global climate change," Obama said in a statement.
Several of Obama's nominees have faced procedural moves by Republicans that have made it difficult to assemble the president's second-term Cabinet.
That logjam broke up somewhat with the votes on Moniz and McCarthy and the advancement of Thomas Perez, nominee for secretary of labor, which also came on Thursday after a party-line vote in committee.
Moniz's nomination was held in limbo for several weeks in a dispute between South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham and the Obama administration over the government's management of a nuclear waste disposal project in the state.
Despite the brief hold, the confirmation was never really in doubt after the nominee, who is well-known in Washington after a stint with the Clinton administration, sailed through his confirmation hearing.
"Glad to see the Senate work and Dr. Moniz confirmed for Secretary of Energy with overwhelmingly bipartisan support," said Ron Wyden, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Industry and many green groups also congratulated Moniz on Thursday but some environmentalists, including the Sierra Club, warned the new secretary to be cautious in the way he deals with the issue of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Meanwhile, the Senate Environment and Public Works committee earlier backed McCarthy, Obama's choice to be the nation's chief environmental steward.
The 10-8 committee vote along party lines came a week after Republicans boycotted a scheduled vote on McCarthy.
No date has been set for a floor vote on McCarthy, said California Democrat Barbara Boxer, the committee chairwoman.
David Vitter of Louisiana, the ranking Republican, said the decision to attend the vote came after "meaningful progress" in talks with acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe on five key requests for explanations about the agency's operations.
McCarthy is likely to face a tough vote when her nomination comes to the full Senate.
Republican Roy Blunt of Missouri maintains a hold on McCarthy's nomination in a dispute about a repairing a levee system on the Mississippi River.
If the hold is not lifted, McCarthy will need 60 votes in the 100-member chamber to win confirmation. The Democrats hold 53 Senate seats against 45 for the Republicans. Two independent senators typically side with the Democrats in votes.
In recent weeks, Republican senators have posed more than 1,000 written questions to McCarthy, a tally that Democrats say is a new record. An administration official said last week she had answered every one.
Among the requests Vitter made of the acting administrator was for the EPA to convene a separate panel of economic experts "with significant private sector experience" to conduct rigorous analyses of all the agency's proposed regulations and their impact on the U.S. economy.
Boxer told reporters she was skeptical of the Republicans' tactics: "Everything I have seen tells me they want to get a certain answer. Don't let her (McCarthy) twist in the wind with the threat of filibuster," she said.
(Additional reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Ros Krasny, David Brunnstrom and; Eric Walsh)