Senate panel OKs bill to kill Obama rule after fierce partisan clashes

By Annie Snider | 06/10/2015 01:00 PM EDT

Article updated at 2:35 p.m. EDT.

Despite fiery opposition from Democrats, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee this morning voted 11-9 along party lines to advance a measure to kill the Obama administration’s controversial water rule.

S. 1140 would send the Obama administration back to the drawing board on its recently finalized Waters of the U.S. rule, setting new criteria for how a future rule should be developed and what streams and wetlands should and shouldn’t qualify for Clean Water Act protection under it.


Ranking member Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said this morning’s markup was a low point for her on the committee.

"You’re ripping the heart out of a bill, which is a landmark bill which has separated this country from a lot of other countries and has done a great job for 40 years and we’re messing with it, and that’s a sad day for the Environment Committee," she said.

She pointed out that William Ruckelshaus, who served as U.S. EPA Administrator under Republican presidents Nixon and Reagan, has said “broad Clean Water Act jurisdiction” is necessary to cleaning up the country’s waters and making sure responsibility is shared equally among the states.

The often-professorial Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) at one point raised his voice and banged the dais in frustration.

"The collective wisdom of the Congress of the United States said we want clean water, and it’s up to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps to carry out those directives," he said. "Don’t say that we aren’t going to let agencies carry out their responsibility because they’re not carrying out the will of Congress; if we don’t think we’re clear in what we say, let’s say it clearer."

Before final passage, the committee voted down five amendments from Democrats aimed at altering the bill’s goals and allowing U.S. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to ignore portions of the legislation if the agencies decide the measures would interfere with their ability to protect drinking water or would increase costs.

Republicans said those amendments would neuter the bill and voted them all down on party lines.

The fight now heads to the Senate floor where the vote margin is much closer. A test vote in March suggested that the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster could be within reach for opponents of the rule. But key senators, including Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Angus King (I-Maine) who voted with critics in March, have reserved final judgment until they more fully absorb the changes made in the final version of the rule (E&E Daily, June 3).

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who co-sponsored S. 1140 with Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), today made a pitch to those swing senators.

"It’s possible to have reasonable regulations that help preserve our waterways while still respecting the difference between state waters and federal waters," he said. "Unfortunately, the rule that EPA has released doesn’t do that. In fact, the rule is actually worse than the proposed rule."

Barrasso argued that any concessions made by the agencies in the final rule — such as hard-line boundaries for when waters are outside federal reach and broader exemptions for ditches — are outweighed by other changes in the rule "that greatly expand their authority."

Although the fight in committee fell strictly along party lines, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said he did see merits in the Barrasso bill, even though he couldn’t support it.

"While I can’t support this proposal, I would say that there are several aspects of this bill that have merits," Carper said. "I think a report to Congress on how to ensure communities are not harmed unintentionally by this new rule would be helpful to ensure that EPA stays on the right track."