Obama’s Clean Water rules saved by the Senate – for now

The Senate voted against a bill that would have forced the Environmental Protection Agency to rewrite regulations finalized in May that seek to clarify protections afforded to temporary waterways under the Clean Water Act.

Ben Pierce/Bozeman Daily Chronicle/AP/File
Erin McCleary fishes a small stream south of Butte, Mont., Oct. 3. The US Senate on Tuesday blocked a bill that would force the Environmental Protection Agency to rewrite rules designed to clarify the EPA's jurisdiction over temporary streams and waterways.

Some 117 million Americans rely on water from temporary waterways for drinking. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has had regulatory control over waterways since 1972 in order to ensure pollution control under the Clean Water Act, millions of miles of streams and millions of acres of wetland were left without federal protection, advocates say.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration and the EPA sought to solve this issue by enacting a new measure to include temporary waterways – streams, tributaries, and wetlands that periodically flow and run dry with the seasons – in the Clean Water Act. The Senate revisited the issue this week, voting on a bill that would have overturned the regulations issued in May.

Proponents of the legislation, and therefore opponents of the rules, did not clinch the 60 votes needed to reconsider the bill in Tuesday’s vote. While voting fell mostly along party lines, four Democrats sided with Republicans on the measure – Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.

Those for the legislation see the new rules as an unnecessary move that threatens farms and businesses. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell called the regulations "a cynical and overbearing power grab dressed awkwardly as some clean water measure."

And indeed, farm and business groups are some of the rules' chief opponents, but many state governments are backing them up, with more than half of states suing the government in order to block the rules. Federal judges have put the rules on hold to consider these lawsuits, which could be good news for opponents.

The White House, however, continues to stand by the regulations, saying they are "essential to ensure clean water for future generations," and that "our communities and businesses need clarity and certainty around clean water regulation." President Obama’s administration has threatened to veto the bill if it passes.

This Senate bill mimics one passed in the House earlier this year, and although it did not receive enough votes Tuesday, many Senators remained determined to continue fighting the rules.

Led by Sen. Joni Ernst (R) of Iowa, the Senate voted to proceed to a “resolution of disapproval,” a vote requiring a simple majority, that if successful would scrap the rules if signed into law.

"While we may have fallen short today, this is not the end of this issue," said Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the GOP sponsor of the bill. "One way or another, Republicans won't stop until this rule is withdrawn or the courts ultimately strike it down for good."

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

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