Congressional Republicans launched attacks on two fronts this week against President Barack Obama's signature plan to cut carbon dioxide from the country's power plants.
The House of Representatives voted 247-180 along party lines Wednesday to pass a bill that would allow states to opt out of the rule. The Senate is considering similar legislation, also championed by Republicans from coal-producing states. In addition, Republicans have added riders to appropriations bills for the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency that would dismantle a host of environmental regulations including the carbon dioxide rule, known as the Clean Power Plan.
"It is a radical regulation that will dramatically transform the way electricity is produced and regulated in America," said Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on power and the sponsor of the bill, according to The Hill.
The White House said Obama would veto both measures. In a statement issued before the House vote on the opt-out bill, designated the Ratepayer Protection Act, the administration said such a move by Congress before the carbon dioxide rule is finalized would be a highly unusual circumvention of the EPA's regulatory process.
"The bill would give governors unprecedented and broad discretion to avoid compliance with the CAA [Clean Air Act], thereby delaying the delivery of important public health benefits," the administration said in the statement. "The bill's effects would be felt hardest by those most at risk from the impacts of air pollution and climate change."
When the Republicans took control of both houses of Congress earlier this year, the party leadership said it would try various ways to derail the president's environmental agenda. Three broad routes are open to Republicans, said Melinda Pierce, legislative director for the Sierra Club. One would be deploying the Congressional Review Act to nullify a rule by a vote of Congress. That, however, has rarely been successful.
The Republicans are instead pursuing two other approaches, Pierce said. They are to pass stand-alone bills, such as the Ratepayer Protection Act, and to attach riders to must-pass legislation, such as appropriations bills.
The Ratepayer Protection Act might not make it to the president's desk because it faces hurdles in the Senate. The upper house's version is unlikely to get the 60 votes needed to avoid a Democratic filibuster, according to several legislative directors of Washington environmental groups. As a result, it might not make it out of committee for a floor vote.
If Obama vetoes the current appropriations bill, Congress and the White House will have to negotiate budgets in a few more months, before the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1. The GOP has attached so many riders to the Interior and EPA spending bills to abolish so many rules, from a clean water rule to air pollution rules, that it appears unlikely the party can get members to focus on eliminating only one or two regulations, such as the Clean Power Plan, Pierce said.
Though the bills stand little chance of passage, Republicans champion them to differentiate themselves from Democrats, an exercise used by both parties in the run-up to presidential elections. But it means Congress actually accomplishes little.
"The bills are also part of the larger politics: The Republicans are against government writ large, and the EPA is their bete noire," Pierce said. "The Democrats are pushing back, arguing that they are for public health."
Outside Washington, opponents of Obama's environmental agenda scored a victory. A federal judge in Wyoming temporarily halted implementation of the Interior Department's rule regarding fracking on public lands Tuesday, a few hours before the measure was to go into effect.
The rule requires that companies post the chemicals they use in fracking on a publicly available, industry-run website. It sets safety standards for how wells are cemented and how fracking chemicals are stored at the well pad. U.S. District Judge Scott W. Skavdahl in Wyoming didn't grant an injunction against the rule as the industry sought. But he also didn't exclude the possibility of delaying the rule until its legality could be decided in court, which could take years, the Caspar Star Tribune reported.
The Bureau of Land Management at the Interior Department said it would comply with the court's stay and would issue permits based on pre-existing guidelines. But the agency said it is consulting with the Justice Department and its own Interior Solicitor regarding next steps.