In a rare occurrence this Congress, both environmental and industry representatives -- two sides that are typically at each other's throats -- appear to have come away from a series of meetings on reforming the country's chemical regulations with positive impressions.
Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) conducted the meetings over the past several months to discuss principles for reforming the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).
During most weeks when the Senate was in session, Ben Dunham from Lautenberg's office and Dimitri Karakitsos from Inhofe's would host two closed-door sessions on a single aspect of the law. One session would involve groups from the nonprofit world -- the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Environmental Defense Fund and others -- and the second would seek input from industry representatives like the American Chemistry Council (ACC), Dow Chemical Co., the Consumer Specialty Products Association (CSPA) and others. The meetings ended last Friday.
The effort has been aimed at finding compromise and a way forward for Lautenberg's "Safe Chemicals Act" (S. 847), which would overhaul the way chemicals are regulated by U.S. EPA by requiring manufacturers to prove their substances are safe before they go on the market.
Interviews with many participants in the meetings revealed generally positive reactions to how the meetings played out. Because the meetings were intended to be confidential, most sources refused to speak on the record and those who did declined to provide specifics about what issues were discussed.
But all praised Inhofe and Lautenberg for how their staffs approached the dialogue.
"I've been pleasantly surprised," said Daniel Rosenberg of NRDC. "For what it was -- a small step -- it was professional, constructive and valuable. That is all very good because there is a shortage of that on Capitol Hill. That alone makes it a worthwhile process."
There was also a sense that both Lautenberg and Inhofe were taking the process seriously. Multiple participants noted that their staffs asked very pointed questions on specific issues in hopes of finding areas where each side might be willing to give some ground and compromise.
Both industry and environmental groups also agreed that the meetings went better than stakeholder meetings conducted last year in the House on similar legislation.
"I can't emphasize how important it was for Senator Lautenberg and Senator Inhofe to step up, provide leadership and agree to this process," said Laura Madden of CSPA. "This is not an easy issue by any measure and, as Ben and Dimitri both said, they learned a lot in this process and we learned a lot."
What the outcome of the meetings mean, however, remains very unclear. Some participants noted that both sides -- environmental groups and industry representatives -- never sat down together, so they don't know where the other side stands on different parts of Lautenberg's bill. It is also unknown if such a meeting will take place before Lautenberg tries to move his legislation.
Lautenberg is planning to hold a legislative hearing in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in the coming weeks and likely a markup before the end of the year.
The Democrat's office said participants made significant strides with the meetings.
"With Senator Inhofe's help and input from so many different parties, these meetings made significant progress," said Caley Gray, a spokesman for Lautenberg. "We look forward to moving this bill forward in the coming weeks."
Another big question mark is whether Lautenberg will make changes to the bill, perhaps through a manager's amendment at markup, that would convince Inhofe to sign on. That would be a significant step because Lautenberg has never received Republican support for TSCA reform in the past and Inhofe's backing would likely pave the way for other Republicans to jump on board.
Observers note that there are actually three routes that Inhofe, the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, could take. He could sign on, which would greatly bolster Lautenberg's chances of getting a vote on the Senate floor. Or, he could decline to support the bill but refrain from sharply criticizing it. Dubbed the "stand down" option by some of those involved, that scenario could lead to some moderate Republican senators voting for the bill.
Thirdly, Inhofe could object to the bill and fire away at it, making it hard for Lautenberg to drum up any GOP backing.
Thus far, Inhofe has said TSCA reform is an uphill climb and has indicated that the House would have to be on board for him to back legislation.
Inhofe has also been appreciative of Lautenberg's work on the issue and said the stakeholder meetings were an important part of the legislative process.
"The meetings demonstrated Lautenberg's sincere in his efforts and we appreciated the bipartisan effort," said Matt Dempsey, a spokesman for Inhofe. "We feel like this has been a good process."
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