Defying a veto threat by the White House, the House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill to permanently eliminate all authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions.
Despite Washington's preoccupation with devising a budget resolution to avert a government shutdown, House Speaker John Boehner brought to a vote a largely symbolic bill aimed at curbing EPA regulatory authority on climate change.
That might seem strange given that the bill – approved 255 to 172, with votes falling mostly along party lines – is not expected to become law.
A key reason: No fewer than four measures to curb EPA authority, including one with the same wording as the House bill, failed in the Senate Wednesday, falling far short of the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster. Moreover, President Obama has said he would veto such a bill.
So why vote at all? For one thing, the House vote puts on record, in time for the 2012 election cycle, which legislators voted for and against curbing EPA authority on climate-change regulations, analysts say. For another, the bill allows Republicans and a handful of Democrats to demonstrate continued determination to rein in the EPA on climate change.
A spokesman for the petrochemical industry hailed the bill as "an important victory." While many jobs have already been lost under existing regulators, the economic impact would be worse "if EPA's greenhouse gas regulations are allowed to continue unchecked," Charles Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, said in a statement.
Environmentalists, however, deplored passage of what they call the "Dirty Air Act." “Today House members had a choice: stand up for the health of our children, elderly citizens and other vulnerable populations, or do the bidding of America’s biggest polluters,” said Nathan Willcox, program director for Environment America’s federal global warming program. "We’re thankful that the Senate made it clear yesterday that this dangerous attack on the nation’s health and environment is dead on arrival.”
The fight is likely to continue through different avenues. Several policy "riders" that aim to accomplish the same ends as the House's Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011 and the failed Senate amendments are now attached to the continuing resolution bill to fund the government.
Environmentalists worry that the Obama administration, which is eager to avert a government shutdown, might compromise on one or more of the riders to the spending bill and permit EPA authority to be weakened. Among those riders are measures to block EPA from regulating greenhouse-gas emissions and to repeal the agency's finding that such gases pose a global warming threat to human health and welfare.
Those riders, as much as money differences, appear to be at the center of the budget impasse. (Many riders are about non-EPA issues, such as NPR funding and Planned Parenthood.) Speaker Boehner Thursday morning said the government funding fight isn't just about money, but also about "common-sense policy restrictions on how taxpayer dollars are spent."
"I can see us sitting down at the negotiating table and coming away with an agreement on numbers," Senator Reid said about the negotiations, in a speech on the Senate floor Thursday. "But no one can realistically think that we will walk out of a room and suddenly agree to roll back women's access to health care or protections for the environment."
Those spending bill policy restrictions include riders that would:
• Prohibit EPA use of funds to implement or enforce any statutory or regulatory requirement pertaining to emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide.
• Prohibit the EPA from using its funds to develop or enforce any regulation to define coal ash and other residue of power plant combustion as hazardous waste.
So far, though, the president has not yielded, saying he won't accept riders that hurt the environment – and lauding the Senate for rejecting the four measures to diminish EPA authority.
"The administration is encouraged by the Senate's actions [Wednesday] to defend the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to protect public health under the Clean Air Act," the president said in a statement. "By rejecting efforts to roll back EPA's common-sense steps to safeguard Americans from harmful pollution, the Senate also rejected an approach that would have increased the nation's dependence on oil, contradicted the scientific consensus on global warming, and jeopardized America's ability to lead the world in the clean energy economy."
Others had a different interpretation of the Senate votes, noting the four measures, though defeated, attracted some Democratic support. That fact, they say, could have significance in the future.
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, who sponsored a measure to permanently revoke EPA authority to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions, won 50 votes – more than the three other measures combined. His proposal drew support from four Democrats: Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. A lone Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, voted against the McConnell plan.
Not a single Republican voted for the other three Democratic-sponsored bills, milder measures that would have only delayed or altered EPA action on greenhouse emissions. Still, Senator McConnell in a statement said that "an overwhelming bipartisan majority" had voted "to rein in job- and economy-destroying EPA regulations.
"We in the Senate will continue to fight for legislation that will give the certainty that no unelected bureaucrat at the EPA is going to make efforts to create jobs even more difficult than the administration already has," he said.
That characterization of defeat as partial victory was echoed by industry groups that had closely watched the vote.
"While the Senate was unable to pass Senator McConnell’s amendment to the Small Business Bill today, the vote demonstrates that Senators on both sides of the aisle understand the negative impact the Environmental Protection Agency’s new greenhouse gas regulations will have on manufacturing," said Jay Timmons, president of the National Association of Manufactures, an industry trade group, in a statement.
Others, however, said the Senate's defeat of four measures to strip EPA authority was a big win for the environment.
“The Senate today turned back a wave of assaults on clear air and health, but as the continued overreach in the House shows, this fight is far from over," Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington environmental group, said in a statement. "We expect Senate leadership and President Obama to continue standing firm in opposing these misguided efforts to dismantle the EPA’s ability to limit carbon dioxide pollution.”