In a move likely to provoke a sharp confrontation with the House of Representatives, a Senate panel took a large step back Monday from the dramatic restrictions the House has imposed on enforcement of environmental laws.
The subcommittee vote makes it clear that while the House was willing to accept a conservative-led effort to sharply limit the operations of the Environmental Protection Agency, proponents of the restrictions face a difficult battle in the Senate.
The Senate subcommittee also restored three-quarters of a billion dollars in environmental funding that was stripped from the measure by the House, although the bill would still trim President Clinton’s budget request for the EPA by $1.7 billion, to $5.7 billion, which is $900 million less than the agency was granted for the current fiscal year.
The Senate panel - the appropriations subcommittee responsible for the budgets of the Veterans Administration, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and independent government agencies - did endorse a House decision to deny Clinton any funding for his National Service program, which provides tuition funds for college students in exchange for volunteer work. It also lopped nearly $1.3 billion from the $38.6 billion the president has sought for the veterans’ agency. The White House has indicated the president is likely to veto the bill unless major changes are made in it.
The full committee is expected to pass the bill without major changes and send it to the Senate floor, perhaps as early as next week.
At the center of the differences between the House and Senate is the debate over the degree to which government agencies can order state and local governments and private business to follow Washington’s dictates on the environment and social programs.
In July, the House came close to rejecting the limits on the EPA, voting on a Friday to turn down the restrictions, and then narrowly reversing itself on the following Monday after House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., argued that the regulations were unnecessarily burdensome and, as such, exemplified federal excess in areas that should be left to state and local authorities.
The House plan includes 17 provisions that would prevent the EPA from enforcing certain regulations protecting wetlands, governing automobile emission inspections, and setting drinking-water standards, among other environmental measures.
The Senate subcommittee accepted only one of the 17, a measure that prohibits the environmental agency from requiring states to force employers to draw up car-pool plans. Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., the subcommittee chairman, indicated that his opposition to the provisions was based not so much on their content as on his concern that the appropriations measure was not the proper vehicle for considering them.
The Clinton administration took sharp issue with the subcommittee’s budget decisions, drawing attention to the sizable cuts in the president’s spending plan and ignoring the decision to retreat from the restrictions imposed by the House. For example, the Superfund that pays for cleaning up toxic waste dumps would receive $504 million less than the $1.5 billion Clinton has sought for it.