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By Dean Scott
In the weeks ahead the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hopes to be deeply enmeshed in the Trump administration’s vision of a $1 trillion upgrade to U.S. infrastructure—and there will be plenty of reason for its chairman to boast that the panel is meeting its responsibilities on public works.
But on the environment? Not so much.
Republicans now firmly in control of Congress and the White House do have an environmental agenda of sorts, but it’s one focused mostly on rolling back regulations rather than strengthening environmental protections. The committee’s new chairman, Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso, has often led the Senate campaign to rescind Obama-era environmental and other rules under the Congressional Review Act, which allows the Senate to vote down regulations with a simple majority vote.
But since taking the gavel from Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) in January, Barrasso has made clear that his top priority is moving President Donald Trump’s infrastructure package—or moving the chairman’s own plan if the president doesn’t pick up the pace—while his panel lays the groundwork for a Republican environmental agenda that includes delaying an update of EPA ozone limits and revamping the Endangered Species Act.
The Wyoming Republican for now sees the infrastructure package as his best hope for making a lasting impression as chairman. Asked about his priorities, Barrasso was succinct: “We have infrastructure. After that, we’ll see,” he told Bloomberg BNA.
But the environment committee has little if anything on its agenda to strengthen environmental protections and is silent on climate change—even Barrasso’s predecessor Inhofe held hearings to debate climate science. Environmental advocates and climate scientists said that is a glaring omission given the global environmental challenge that is climate change.
The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Tom Carper (Del.), said committee Republicans can’t be expected to make climate change a priority if they don’t believe in it.
“The 800-pound gorilla, in terms of environmental issues, is climate change,” Carper told Bloomberg BNA. “But we have leadership on our committee with John Barrasso, and before that Jim Inhofe, [and] they don’t believe in the science.”
Climate change “is the most important environmental issue that we face, maybe of our lifetime,” Carper said.
Last year was the hottest year on record and 16 of the 17 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Committee Republicans in recent days have in a sense taken up the climate issue, though it’s not exactly what environmental groups had in mind.
Twenty Senate Republicans sent a May 25 letter to Trump, urging U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the global climate pact reached by nearly 200 nations in December 2015. Six were environment committee Republicans: Barrasso and Inhofe and Sens. John Boozman (Ark.), Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), Roger Wicker (Miss.), and Mike Rounds (S.D.).
Some Republicans don’t necessarily see the need to offer environmental legislation just because they sit on the committee. Take EPW’s newest member: Alabama’s Shelby, who joined the committee in February and is focused mostly on the public works half of the committee’s name.
“My priority for EPW would be a very good infrastructure bill for the country—you know, a lot of it would come out of that committee,” Shelby told Bloomberg BNA. “We have to figure out how it would work and the administration should lead on that,” he said, adding that the committee will have a say in how it’s paid for.
But asked what environmental bills he’d like to move, Shelby said he had none. “Well, I don’t have any of that,” he said, adding that the committee needs to remain “cognizant” of environmental issues.
Environment committee majority aides were quick to dispute the notion that the Republican legislative menu leans toward lighter fare or that it has a modest workload beyond preparing for an actual legislative proposal on infrastructure.
“On the contrary, under Chairman Barrasso’s leadership, the committee is off to a fast start,” Mike Danylak, the committee’s majority spokesman, told Bloomberg BNA in an email.
Republican committee aides said Barrasso has kept his committee plenty busy in its first five months with multiple hearings on infrastructure, as well as on environmental issues ranging from endangered species and conservation to revamping the EPA’s air pollution limits for ozone.
Danylak highlighted two Barrasso-authored bills that the committee approved this year with backing from Democrats: the WILD Act ( S. 826) to provide prize competitions to prevent wildlife poaching and trafficking; and Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act ( S. 512), which sets out licensing for new reactors and addresses transparency concerns at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Three others have been passed by voice vote: the Small and Rural Community Clean Water Technical Assistance Act (S. 518); Water Infrastructure Flexibility Act ( S. 692); and Long Island Sound Restoration and Stewardship Act ( S. 675).
But beyond moving EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to confirmation in February, the committee hasn’t spent much time considering EPA nominations, because there haven’t been many.Trump has only one EPA nominee—Susan Bodine, to head EPA enforcement—pending before the environment panel even though there are multiple agency positions requiring Senate confirmation.
No hearing has been scheduled for Bodine, who has served as chief majority counsel for the environmental committee, but Barrasso is “committed to moving nominations quickly,” Danylak said.
There is grumbling among some committee Republicans that committee Democrats may be slowing that nomination, but Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who sits on the committee, denied the suggestion. “There’s certainly not a specific organized plan” to do so, he told Bloomberg BNA.
Barrasso is not exactly drawing rave reviews from environmental groups, which complain the new chairman rushed Pruitt’s confirmation to head the EPA and see the Wyoming Republican as hostile to climate action and environmental protections. For their part, Barrasso and many Republicans accused Democrats of slow walking the Pruitt vote over lingering resentment over Trump’s election.
“I think the public should be extremely concerned that Senator Barrasso is trying to take the committee in a very dangerous direction, favoring polluter profits at the expense of public health at every step of the way,” Tiernan Sittenfeld, the League of Conservation Voters’ senior vice president of government affairs, told Bloomberg BNA. “The one bright spot,” she said, has been Carper’s willingness to do battle as the panel’s ranking minority.
To have the committee ignore the climate issue is particularly disheartening for climate action advocates, according to Anna Aurilio, director of Environment America’s Washington D.C., office.
“What should an environment committee be doing in the Senate when 2016 was the hottest year on record and beating 2015 the year before that?” she told Bloomberg BNA. “And there are drinking water quality problems around the country, not just in Flint, Mich. I would think this is the committee that would work on tackling these problems and moving us forward, but the only thing I have seen on this committee’s agenda this year is to roll back progress.”
Barrasso’s criticisms of the EPA go well beyond what he views as regulatory overreach by the Obama administration, telling colleagues on the Senate floor April 4 that Obama’s environmental agenda “has harmed families and the American economy, not by accident but intentionally.”
The chairman blames the agency for what he labeled “two of the biggest environmental scandals we have seen in a long time”—lead contamination of the Flint, Mich., water supply and the 2015 Gold King Mine disaster in Colorado, where an EPA contractor was blamed for discharging 3 million gallons of mine wastewater upstream from the San Juan River.
There is little dispute that Republicans and Democrats have moved increasingly apart in recent decades, and that is particularly obvious in the environment committee. During the Bush administration, the panel included Republican backers of climate legislation including former Virginia Sen. John Warner and Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords.
Jeffords famously abandoned the Republican Party in 2001, handing Senate control over to Democrats. Moderate Democrats on the environment committee such as former Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.) today are just as rare.
“We have the most conservative of Republicans and most liberal of the Democrats,” Inhofe, who preceded Barrasso as the committee’s chairman, told Bloomberg BNA.
Inhofe fell short in his effort to move a significant environmental package—a Bush administration-backed bill to revamp Clean Air Act regulation of power plants known as the Clear Skies bill. The bill went down to defeat in 2005 when Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) and Jeffords—the former Republican turned Independent—voted no.
Inhofe said it’s unclear whether his successor will try to take on a similar multiyear effort to broadly rewrite environmental law, but attributed that to more of a difference in style than ideology.
“Our styles are different. My tendency has always been to start on something and finish it before I start something else,” the former chairman said.
Committee Republicans such as Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W. Va.) have environmental legislation ready to move—her air pollution bill ( S. 263) would delay implementation of the EPA’s 2015 ozone standards to 2025.
Her challenge is one faced by any committee Republican pushing legislation deemed as anti-environment by Democrats: The majority party likely has the votes to force Capito’s bill through committee but not the 60 needed to avoid a filibuster threat on the floor, given Republicans’ slim 52–48 majority.
“Compromise would be a tough one,” Capito told Bloomberg BNA after a May 23 hearing on her bill in the Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety.
Rather than seek compromise with Democrats, Capito said she’d try to get the measure wrapped into must-pass legislation—such as the next spending measure needed to keep the government open after the current omnibus funding measure expires Sept. 30. That approach is perhaps the only playbook for Republicans who want to move other sweeping legislation targeting environmental protections.
Many Democrats on the committee see room for compromise on at least some issues.
Carper, known for striking deals with Republicans on issues such as reducing environmental permitting burdens, harkened back to what Wyoming Republican Sen. Mike Enzi once referred to as the “80-20” rule.
Enzi acknowledged he wouldn’t always agree with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) when they were the senior Republican and Democrat on the Health, Education and Labor Committee, Carper said. Enzi would say “we focus on the 80 percent where we agree—and set aside the other 20 percent for another day,” Carper said.
“Now I don’t know that Sen. John Barrasso and I agree on 80 percent of this stuff, but there are things that we agree on,” Carper said.
Carper said compromise is possible as long as policies meant to foster economic growth don’t come at the expense of environmental protection. “As long as we can hold that sort of as our true north, we’ll be able to work on some things,” he said.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said there have been glimmers of compromise on the conservation prize legislation and there’s room for bipartisan oversight of Trump administration implementation of a 2016 law that revamped the Toxic Substances Control Act.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is among the committee Democrats who are optimistic about the prospect of finding common ground with Republican members on nuclear power but also to advance Trump administration nominations.
“There’s a lot of goodwill on both sides,” Booker told Bloomberg BNA. “And look, we’re never going to agree on climate change and the like. But as far as getting the work of the committee done on things that may not make that national headline but are actually really important for the country—I have found a lot of great partnerships at EPW.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at DScott@bna.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Connolly at PConnolly@bna.com
Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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