WASHINGTON - At the end of his testimony on the Clear Skies Act of 2005 last month, an Ohio official representing two national groups of state and local air quality regulators told a Senate subcommittee on the environment that he would be happy to respond in writing to any additional questions.
Three days later, the questions arrived, eight from Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, the chairman of the full committee and a co-sponsor of the bill.
But only one of Mr. Inhofe's written questions to the witness, John A. Paul, had anything to do with Clear Skies, the first major change to the Clean Air Act in 15 years, which the committee is scheduled to finalize on Wednesday. The rest of Mr. Inhofe's interest focused on how the two groups conducted their business, including a request for the groups' tax filings for the last six years.
While Mr. Inhofe was within his right to seek financial information from groups that receive grants from the Environmental Protection Agency, as Mr. Paul's organizations do, the groups' executive director said he viewed the requests as a bullying tactic because the groups oppose the bill.
"I thought it was intimidation," said S. William Becker, who leads the groups, the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and its sister organization, the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials. "They said they have been investigating us since last May. So perhaps this is a continuation of a pattern of intimidation."
Nothing could be further from the truth, say aides to Mr. Inhofe, who said that his request for tax information was part of a broader review of organizations that received grant money from the environmental agency. Will Hart, a spokesman for the committee, said Mr. Inhofe was examining records from 200 such groups, though he declined to name any of them.
"This is an ongoing investigation," Mr. Hart said. "With grant oversight capacity, the committee is authorized to look into questions raised over the years."
Mr. Inhofe appears to be the only member of the 18-member committee raising the questions during the difficult negotiations over Clear Skies. An aide to another Republican member of the committee, who insisted on anonymity because of uncertainties over prospects for the bill's passage, said no other senator felt as strongly about grant oversight as did Mr. Inhofe.
But Senator James M. Jeffords, a Vermont independent and the ranking member of the committee, who has battled Mr. Inhofe on a number of issues including Clear Skies, expressed strong misgivings over the request for tax filings, saying he was deeply concerned over its timing and appropriateness.
"This organization has testified numerous times before Congress on Clean Air Act matters; their expertise, who they are, and who they represent is well known," Mr. Jeffords said. "I am troubled by this precedent for the Senate."
Representative Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat and the ranking member of the Government Reform Committee, also had harsh words for Mr. Inhofe, calling his request for tax information "a blatant attempt at intimidation and bullying" to scare off opponents of a bill that has strong White House support.
"Congressional hearings should be an attempt at honest fact-finding, not thuggery," Mr. Waxman said. "A committee has no right to try to intimidate witnesses."
Mr. Becker's organizations, which receive a combined $1 million a year from the environmental agency, provided answers to the senators' questions as well as the tax forms. But the conflict arising from Mr. Inhofe's request in the final stages of negotiations over Clear Skies served as another reminder of how controversial the legislation is.
Mr. Inhofe had scheduled a session to finalize the bill two weeks ago, only to cancel the session after it became apparent the bill lacked the votes for committee approval. Since then, members of the committee have met amongst themselves, and their staffs have met. But the apparent deadlock that forced the postponement may still be in place, setting up potential embarrassment for Mr. Inhofe and disappointment for the Bush administration.
Mr. Inhofe and eight other Republicans support the measure, but Mr. Jeffords, seven Democrats and one Republican, Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, oppose it. Late last week, however, Mr. Chafee told Congressional Quarterly that he might be willing to change his position on mandatory caps for carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas that scientists say contributes to global warming. Clear Skies includes caps only for the air pollutants sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury.
The inclusion of carbon caps has been a major obstacle in negotiations over the bill.
Mr. Becker, meanwhile, said he remained mystified as to why Mr. Inhofe waited so long to bring his investigation to the doorstep of his organizations. But a clue, he said, might be found in the last of Mr. Inhofe's written questions to Mr. Paul, when he asked if the two organizations had a position on regulating carbon dioxide.
© 2005 New York Times Co.