President Bush's decision to relax the enforcement of industrial clean air rules survived a crucial test yesterday, as the Senate voted 50 to 46 against a Democratic call to delay the new policy for six months while scientists study its potential effects on public health.
Administration officials and industry representatives hailed the vote as an affirmation of the president's efforts to remove regulatory constraints on refineries and manufacturing plants seeking to upgrade or expand their facilities.
"I think there's a consensus emerging around the president's efforts to achieve real bipartisan progress on environmental protection and the rejection of zero-sum partisan approaches that stall progress," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
But the vote also revealed deep-seated bipartisan concerns about the administration's handling of clean air issues. Six moderate and conservative Republicans from Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Arizona -- states hit hard by air pollution generated by midwestern and western power plants -- sided with most Democrats in trying to block the president's premier environmental initiative. Six Democrats from oil and gas producing states backed Bush's policy, while four other Democrats who frequently vote with environmentalists were absent for the vote.
Lobbyists for environmental groups who stood in a reception area near the Senate floor cheered when the vote was announced, despite their loss. "I can't underscore enough the significance of this vote," said Rebecca Stanfield of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "This vote shows that clean air is a bipartisan issue and that this Senate can defeat attempts to weaken public health safeguards."
Yesterday's action was the first political test of the president's environmental policies since the GOP regained control of the Senate in November. It came during deliberations over a $385 billion spending bill for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1. Democrats and independent Sen. James M. Jeffords (Vt.) have used the debate to define their differences with Bush. "This administration has a disturbing anti-environment agenda," Jeffords said.
One of Bush's most controversial decisions was to enable industrial polluters to upgrade their plants -- and likely increase their emissions -- without having to install the costly antipollution equipment required by law. Older, coal-fired power plants would have far more leeway to perform "routine maintenance" under a separate proposed rule that officials hope to put into effect this year.
EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman -- who lobbied against the Democratic amendment -- has said changes to the "New Source Review" rules would "actually reduce dangerous emissions" by encouraging plants to increase their efficiencies. But environmentalists and officials of nine New England and mid-Atlantic states that sued the EPA say the rule changes would neutralize one of the few effective tools for combating industrial pollution.
Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), a presidential candidate, led yesterday's effort to attach a rider to the spending bill to delay the new rules governing oil refineries and manufacturers for six months while the National Academy of Sciences investigates whether the policy would increase health-threatening pollution. "Shouldn't we look before we leap?" Edward asked. "Before we change rules that can affect the most basic protections for our kids and families and our parks, shouldn't we at least do an analysis of what impact it's going to have?"
But Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) said the rule changes -- first proposed during the Clinton administration -- were long overdue. He pushed through a substitute amendment, by a 51 to 45 vote, that allows the rules to take effect while the national academy conducts its study. Republicans Judd Gregg and John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.) and John McCain (Ariz.) sided with the Democrats.
Republicans have inserted other provisions in the bill that have drawn fire from environmental groups. One provides $15 million for the Army Corps of Engineers's controversial Yazoo Pump project in central Mississippi. The huge project -- which involves building the world's largest hydraulic pumping plant -- would drain 200,000 acres of wetlands that is home to wintering waterfowl and rare plants, the environmental group American Rivers said.
The main beneficiaries would be cotton, rice and soybean farmers in six Mississippi counties that already receive some of the largest federal agricultural subsidies, according to the Washington-based Environmental Working Group. Pro-environment senators also expressed concern about a provision that would prohibit court challenges to a Forest Service management plan for the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company