WASHINGTON — Republicans controlling a powerful Senate committee moved Thursday to block Obama administration initiatives to curb global warming, issue new clean water rules and regulate hydraulic fracturing on federal land.
The vote by the Senate Appropriations Committee represents a sweeping attack on the president’s ambitious environmental agenda. Republicans say the rules themselves are an assault on the coal industry, farmers and western landowners.
The battle played out on a $31 billion spending bill for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department. The measure is certain to attract a veto threat from the White House and a filibuster by Democrats angry over a series of GOP policy “riders” that try to block EPA rules on existing coal-fired power plants, updated clean water rules, stricter ozone pollution standards and new rules governing the use by oil companies of “fracking” technologies on Bureau of Land Management land.
Republicans won control on the Senate in last year’s midterm election rout and are testing their new power to unravel Obama regulations.
“It will protect jobs, keep electricity prices low and fight back against the bureaucratic overreach committed by this administration’s EPA.” said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who attended the panel’s debate and is the most powerful force favoring a provision sought by the coal industry to block EPA rules curbing greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fueled power plants.
Environmental activists are alarmed, and their Democratic allies on the panel failed in an attempt to strip the GOP provisions from the legislation.
“It takes aim at bedrock environmental laws like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act,” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. “And it would weaken them permanently — ignoring the will of a broad bipartisan majority of Americans, who believe in protecting the air we breathe and the water we drink.”
The House is scheduled to debate companion legislation next week, but the measure is sure to run aground in the Senate. There, Democrats have served notice that they will filibuster appropriations bills in hopes that the bottleneck will drive Republicans to the bargaining table and agree to additional funding for domestic programs.
The measure sparked battles large and small. Chief author Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is behind language to permit the state to build a road from the remote village of King Cove to a nearby town with a runway, continuing a battle that dates to the Clinton administration. The road would facilitate emergency access but would be built through a wilderness area and has been rejected by the Interior Department, which says it would harm critical habitat for migratory birds.
But bigger battles over air and water pollution are also at issue. For instance, the bill blocks implementation of a rule called Waters of the U.S., which codifies many EPA practices in interpreting the Clean Water Act. Republicans say the rule expands EPA jurisdiction to non-navigable waterways like creeks and will block development or require costly steps by farmers and other landowners to comply with the rule.
McConnell said the new power plant rule is part of the Obama administration’s “war on coal” and has contributed to a depression in mining areas of Appalachia. Udall responded that utilities have increasingly chosen cleaner-burning natural gas and that the decline of the coal industry is largely the work of the marketplace.