The House of Representatives Wednesday rejected legislation that would cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 22.5 percent, handing the Republican leadership a new defeat in the politically sensitive environmental arena.
The 216-208 vote, which sends the measure back to a committee of House and Senate members for at least minor changes, reflected the difficulty House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and his senior aides have encountered in recent months each time they have shifted their focus toward the nation’s natural resources, particularly the quality of its air and water.
The Senate, meanwhile, unanimously approved legislation that would provide $1 billion for states to improve water treatment facilities and set the first federal standards for bottled water. The House has not yet acted on that legislation.
But opponents complained that the bill relaxes a number of important drinking water standards, raising by tenfold the amount of radon - a naturally occurring cancer-causing element - that would be allowed in drinking and bathing water, and pushing back from 1997 to 2001 the deadline for the preparation of new, and presumably tougher, federal standards governing the level of arsenic, another carcinogen, in water.
“That sets a horrendous precedent,” Erik Olson, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said of the lowered standards.
In addition to cutting spending for the environmental agency, the bill would reduce funds for the Department of Housing and Urban Development by 21 percent, a reduction that would cut spending on the homeless by 27 percent. It would increase spending on veterans by $400 million, to give the Department of Veterans Affairs $37.7 billion.
It would eliminate President Clinton’s National Service agency, which funded the Americorps program that provided volunteers for inner-city projects. Also, under the measure, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s budget would be cut 4 percent, to $13.8 billion.
The House vote caught House leaders by surprise.
“Nobody anticipated this. This was out of the blue,” said Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., who in recent months has led the revolt among conservation-minded Republicans against their leadership but who voted on the losing side Wednesday, said in an interview after the vote that House members who voted to reject the measure were “posturing” with an eye toward establishing a pro-environment record for next year’s election.