The House, reversing a major victory for environmentalists on Friday, passed Monday night a broad package of measures curbing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to enforce air and water quality regulations.
A Democrat-led effort to strip the restrictions from pending legislation failed on a tie vote of 210-210. The action reversed an unexpected victory Friday for Democrats who were joined by moderate Republicans in rejecting the restrictions on a 212-206 vote.
The GOP leadership failed to persuade a single moderate Republican to switch positions from the Friday vote. Only California Democrat Cal Dooley, who voted against the restrictions Friday, voted in favor of them Monday.
But Republican vote counters got several members of their party who were absent Friday to the House floor Monday - just enough votes to ensure the tie and reject the amendment.
At issue were 17 provisions that would prevent the EPA from enforcing regulations affecting wetlands protection, auto emission inspections, drinking water standards and other provisions of the anti-pollution law. The restrictions are attached to an appropriations bill approved later Monday on a vote of 228-193. The legislation now goes to the Senate.
The measure would cut the EPA’s budget by one-third, as well as trim the Department of Housing and Urban Development budget by one-fifth. The cuts are so deep, EPA supporters warned, that even if the regulatory restrictions ultimately are removed, the agency will be crippled.
House leaders were far short Monday of the two-thirds vote that they would need to override a threatened veto by President Clinton.
In debate over the restrictions, Republicans led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., argued that the EPA rules are unnecessarily burdensome and, as such, are examples of federal excess in areas better left to regulation by state and local authorities.
The floor manager of the legislation, Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., said that curtailing EPA power breaks “the pattern of undue burdens on sectors of our economy. We can strengthen our environment without putting people out of work.”
But moderate Republicans who opposed the provisions argued against making changes of such magnitude without full debate and public hearings at the committee level. GOP leaders, they said, would be acting without first hearing from the public.
“In years gone by the Republican Party has been a leader in environmental protection,” Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J., said last week. “In fact, it was President Nixon who created the EPA in the first place. And the American people have come to agree overwhelmingly that they want a healthy environment for their children and their grandchildren.”
Lewis took exception to such characterizations. “I am disconcerted by the rhetoric that we were trying to take the heart out of the environmental movement,” he said. “My district is the most smog-infested in the country so I am very sensitive about the environment.”
But the leadership victory had its costs. Many moderate Republicans, arguing that the GOP leadership was going too far in scaling back publicly popular environmental protection statutes, said that they had fired a warning shot that will force their party’s leaders to pay more heed to the moderate wing in the future.
“I don’t think the leadership will again entertain major legislation that is anti-environment in nature,” said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y. “There’s a loud message sent here.”
In the end, 50 Republicans defected to join with Democrats in voting to strip the restrictions from the bill.
“We didn’t really lose,” said Rep. Louis Stokes, D-Ohio, who sponsored the amendment. “You win any time you stand up for the people.
“The people who won were the polluters of this nation. This is one (vote) that is not going to go away. People are going to remember.”
Cinton said Friday that the Republican leadership was conducting “a stealth attack” on public health and environmental protections by including them in a budget bill. He also said that if the measure “comes to my desk in this form, I would veto it.”
xxxx How they voted Here’s how northwest lawmakers voted on a measure to redefine the EPA’s authority to enforce environmental laws. A “yes” vote is a vote to continue government enforcement of environmental laws. Idaho Republicans - Helen Chenoweth, No; Mike Crapo, No. Washington Republicans - Jennifer Dunn, No; Doc Hastings, No; Jack Metcalf, No; George Nethercutt, No; Linda Smith, No; Randy Tate, No; Rick White, Yes. Democrats - Norm Dicks, Yes; Jim McDermott, Yes.