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Environment Bill Rushed, Claim Demos

Senate Republicans muscled sweeping environmental changes through the Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

In a brief but acrimonious session, Democrats and environmentalists charged the bill was being ramrodded. Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, accused Democrats of obstructionism.

After 15 minutes of wrangling over procedures, Hatch slammed down his gavel, picked up his papers and marched out the door.

“When you have an agreement, live up to it,” he shouted at Democrats. “This is over.”

With that, Hatch sent to the Senate floor a bill that would:

Require agencies to justify any regulation that costs American businesses more than $50 million.

Subject many rules to detailed studies to show whether they are justified for serious health, safety or environmental risks.

Set up an independent panel to resolve disputes between federal agencies and the people or businesses they regulate.

The bill, which critics say is a backdoor approach to amending the Endangered Species Act, is expected to reach the Senate floor in June, where additional changes can be made.

The House passed the proposals in mid-March with limited debate. Moderates in both parties urged the Senate to take a more cautious approach.

“But now we see the Senate Judiciary Committee abandoning its responsibility to craft responsible legislation,” said Roni Lieberman, media director for the Sierra Club.

Land-rights organizations said regulatory reform is long overdue.

“This piece of legislation has been in the works for many months,” said Jim Renne, spokesman for the Heritage Foundation. “They had ample opportunity to review and consider these proposals.”

Committee members had agreed to complete debate by 6 p.m. Wednesday. But when Wednesday’s hearing had to be rescheduled so members could attend the funeral of former Sen. John Stennis, D-Miss., the agreement began to crumble.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., objected to the time limit when Thursday’s hearing convened.

“We’re entitled to more than 20 minutes to debate amendments protecting the health and welfare of our children,” he said.

Hatch accused the Democrats of reneging on a promise and preparing for a filibuster.

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