Democrats mount rear-guard action against Republican assault on EPA climate rules

House Democrats ratcheted up their defense of U.S. EPA's climate regulations yesterday as lawmakers debated a GOP-crafted spending bill that would defund the agency's regulations on greenhouse gases and chip away at funding for other environment and climate initiatives.

Building off an argument originally put forward by Republicans and industry groups in opposition to EPA's climate regulations on stationary sources, Democrats yesterday claimed that defunding its regulations now would result in the halted construction projects and backlog of permits that opponents of the regulation feared.

Pulling funding for the initiative, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) argued, would not overturn the requirement to net the permits. Instead, it would just halt "dozens of major [construction] projects" and cost thousands of jobs, he said.

"Members have different views about how to reduce pollution, but we should all agree that a multi-state construction ban is a terrible idea," Waxman said.

Last month, federal climate regulations went into effect that require large stationary sources -- including power plants, refineries and cement kilns -- to seek special air permits before proceeding with new construction projects or modifications to existing facilities that would result in substantial greenhouse gas emissions. In order to net these permits, local air regulators or federal EPA must be persuaded that the project will use the "best available control technology" to limit the facilities' emissions.

Without funds to support EPA in its permitting and guidance work, all or part of 13 states and two territories which depend on federal EPA to step in to issue these permits could face construction bans, according to Waxman.

Sixteen trade associations sent a letter to House lawmakers yesterday saying that any attempt to weaken the Republican effort to stop the regulation by removing EPA's funding would risk "significant adverse impacts on investment, expansion, and job creation in today's fragile economy." They were led by the American Petroleum Institute, the American Iron and Steel Institute and the American Chemistry Council.

Democrats took the opposite view: Blocking EPA's ability to tackle greenhouse gases would be "flat-out dangerous," said one lawmaker, while another called it a "backhanded way of achieving a policy objective."

"This language is an actual assault on jobs," argued Rep. James Moran (D-Va.). "It's a free pass to allow certain industries to pollute," he said.

As the debate droned on to almost 4 a.m., Republicans were hard-pressed to muster the rhetorical energy they showed in their campaigns. On amendment after amendment, Democrats railed against the severity of Republicans' proposed cuts for women, the poor, students, people of color, the sick and the elderly. The small band of Republicans on the left side of the chamber stayed, for the most part, silent.

Republicans spoke rarely and briefly, but when they did, they confidently repeated the message that proved so successful in election season. They didn't need the rhetoric. They had the power, which they'll show in a long series of delayed votes on the budget items scheduled for later today.

As Tom Price (R-Ga.) said, "Our friends on the other side are fond of saying we want to dismantle this and slash that and cut that. The truth of the matter is that what we want to do is save. We want to save the American taxpayer and yes, save the country."

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) was one of a carousel of Democrats charged with blasting each Republican amendment. She said Republicans want to cut $60 billion from the continuing resolution, but they’re not taking it from the oil and agriculture industries, or corporate tax loopholes, that could provide that much. Instead, she said they're going after education, local development, heating for the poor and other programs that have social benefit.

"Drop dead is what you're saying to them, and all because there is no courage at all to go after the special interests and the tax subsidies that could overwhelmingly pay for the cuts that we need in order to be able to bring down the deficit," she said. "That is the issue with this bill tonight. The issue is where do you start."

Shortly after 11 p.m., Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, began challenging Democratic amendments on procedural grounds. He said under House rules, amendments couldn't be considered if they raised the total cost of the bill without an offsetting cut. Democrats scrambled to explain that the amendments were relevant for the House proceeding. The Republican chairmen were unsympathetic, siding with Rehberg and ending debate for a number of them.

Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) praised Republican leaders for letting members allow an unlimited number of amendments. "It certainly is an open process," he said. "That's in direct contrast to when the health care bill was brought to the floor in the last Congress ... not one amendment was in order on the floor."

'Confounding' effects of amendments

In addition to the continuing resolution, which itself defunds efforts to regulate greenhouse gases through the end of the fiscal year, Texas Republican Reps. Ted Poe, Joe Barton and John Carter also offered an amendment that seeks to ensure EPA could not move forward with such regulations.

The American Lung Association and Natural Resources Defense Council decried such moves yesterday, saying such efforts were out of step with Americans' desires.

John Walke, the director of NRDC's clean air program, warned that eliminating EPA's money could have the boomerang effect of obstructing EPA's ability to issue permits, enforce the law, give guidance or even defend its standards in court.

"The confounding effects of these amendments would be to deny industry the ability to get the permits it needs in many jurisdictions where EPA is the permitting authority, and to prevent necessary construction projects from going forward," he said. Walke said Republicans see that there are potential unintended consequences to handcuffing EPA, but they see this as an acceptable outcome because EPA permitting is even more burdensome for industry.

Meanwhile, the American Lung Association released the findings of a new poll yesterday that surveyed the views of 1,021 likely voters across the political spectrum and concluded that 77 percent support stricter limits on carbon dioxide. That finding had a 3.1 percent margin of error.

The polling data is an invaluable tool that acts as a "snapshot" of where America stands on these issues, said Paul Billings, vice president of national policy and advocacy for the group. "Polling information is very relevant to the decisionmaking process in Washington," he said.

When rules on air pollutants -- including carbon dioxide -- were stacked against claims that they would harm the economy, about twice as many people said Congress should not block EPA from regulating pollutants, the survey found when it polled 510 people. That response had a 4.4 percent margin of error.

Whittling away at EPA

During votes on amendments to the continuing resolution last night, several efforts that would whittle down climate and environment funds passed. One measure, which had been offered by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), cutting about $8.5 million from the $2.5 billion budget request for EPA and environmental programs and management for the remainder of the fiscal year, passed. Another effort, sponsored by Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), which would slim down EPA's state and tribal assistance grants from the $2.7 billion request by $10 million, also passed.

Two amendments that would have diminished research work and conservation efforts went down to defeat.

Language offered by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) that would cut the EPA science and technology budget by $64.1 million failed, along with a measure that would have eliminated funding for conservation land acquisition in the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and Agriculture Department. That effort was offered by Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.).

Another amendment that sought to ensure EPA would still be able to move forward with the national renewable fuel standard under the Clean Air Act was thrown out on the grounds that it was legislating on an appropriations bill, which is not allowed under congressional rules.

A host of controversial amendments that would affect climate programming and regulations have not yet faced a vote.

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