Sixty Senators Now Back Chemical Reform Bill

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By Anthony Adragna

Oct. 2 — There is now a filibuster-proof number of senators backing legislation (S. 697) to overhaul the nation's primary chemical law after Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Ed Markey (Mass.) announced Oct. 2 they would support thebill.

The addition of Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, and Markey, who earlier opposed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act in committee and offered a rival bill, comes after sponsors tweaked language in the billto get them on board, according to the office of the bill's lead sponsor, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.).

Specifically, the sponsors added provisions to expedite work on chemicals—such as asbestos—that are known dangers, simplify the process for states to request waivers from federal preemption, ensure fast industry compliance with Environmental Protection Agency regulations and expand agency funding for the chemical program through industry fees, they said.

“I am pleased by the positive and meaningful progress on improvements to TSCA reauthorization legislation,” Markey said in a statement, referring to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act.

Udall's office said changes to legislation would be incorporated into a substitute amendment that would allow the chamber to debate and vote on the bill in a matter of hours, rather than over several weeks as previously suggested.

Vote Promised by Leadership

News of the additional co-sponsors comes a day after Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, told Bloomberg BNA that Senate leadership had promised a floor vote on the bill. Multiplesenators said the Senate could take up the measure as soon as the week of Oct. 5 (39 CRR, 10/5/15)(191 DEN A-23, 10/2/15)(See previous story, 10/02/15).

Joining Durbin and Markey as new sponsors are Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho), according to Udall's office. That means 60 senators from 38 states are publicly backing the measure, although proponents believe they could get between 80 and 85 votes on the Senate floor.

The House approved related legislation, the TSCA Modernization Act (H.R. 2576), in June by a 398–1 vote. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) office said there was no schedule for the Senate bill's consideration yet.

One Major Wrinkle Remains

One crucial issue remains for lawmakers to work through before the bill can come to the floor. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) continues to insist on an amendment that would reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses revenue from offshore oil and gas development to establish national parks and other public spaces.

The problem with adding such language is it could complicate passage of the TSCA modernization measure in the House, where there is significant opposition to extending the fund. Observers also say adding a reauthorization to the TSCA billwon't give Burr what he wants—an immediate lifetime for the program—because it could take months to resolve differences between the House and Senate chemical bills.

Democratic and Republican aides told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 2 that negotiations continue with Burr about the Land and Water Conservation Fund. A Democratic Senate aide said the talks are “moving productively.”

Ironically, many of the key Senate players support the same policies. Burr is a co-sponsor of S. 697 and Udall spoke on the Senate floor in support of an extension of the Land and Water Conservation Fund on Sept. 30.

“Senator Burr is a cosponsor of TSCA and like many members, he would like to have votes on amendments,” Rebecca Watkins, a spokeswoman for Burr, told Bloomberg BNA. “The Senator and his several of his colleagues are committed to working to renew this fund.”

Markey Seen as Key Get

Of all the new co-sponsors, Markey is arguably the most significant because he previously was a staunch opponent of the bill.

There will be more premature deaths “unless EPA is given clear authority, resources and deadlines to take action on chemicals that have already been proven to kill,” Markey said in April of S. 697. “Unfortunately, the bill we are discussing today does not meet that test. It handcuffs states attorneys general, who are our chemical cops on the beat. It gives known dangers a pass, and it fails in any way to create a strong federal chemical safety program that will protect public health.”

Markey's objections were so strong he joined Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the lead Senate opponent of S. 697, in introducing an alternative bill (S. 725) that they said would not allow the EPA to preempt state authority over chemicals but would enable states to enforce federal chemical restrictions.

Benjamin Dunham, former chief counsel to the late New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D), said the addition of Markey and Durbin formally took away the threat of a filibuster—although he said it was clear for months such a move would not have worked. He also said that adding the new co-sponsors “completes the political spectrum in the Senate.”

“The co-sponsor list is now evenly distributed from the far right to the far left, and all points in between,” Dunham, now a senior managing director with Dentons, said. “That tells me that this bill strikes the right balance and it could get in the neighborhood of 90 votes on the floor.”

Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of 450 health, environment, labor and business groups, said in a statement that it appreciates the efforts of the senators toward making “genuine improvements” in the legislation but said it remains opposed to it.

“The Senate legislation would still contain a number of problematic provisions,” the coalition said. “We believe we must do better and we hope the senators will support further efforts to strengthen the bill either on the floor or in conference.”

Boxer's office would not comment on the latest changes, although an aide told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 1 the California Democrat remains opposed to the bill.