Almost immediately after failing to pass a bill that would have required the EPA to rewrite its Waters of the United States rule, the Senate voted to advance a measure that would block the rule entirely under the Congressional Review Act.
The resolution, put forward by Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), passed with a simple majority vote of 55–43. The resolution earned the support of all Senate Republicans — with the exception of Susan Collins (R-ME) — and three Senate Democrats: Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), and Joe Manchin (D-WV).
The vote came just an hour after the Senate failed to pass a separate bill, sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), which would have nulified the Waters of the United States rule — also known as the Clean Water Rule — and set strict parameters for the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers in rewriting the rule. Under Barrasso’s bill, the EPA would have been required to consult with private industry, as well as local and state governments, in redrafting the rule.
Ernst’s resolution, under the Congressional Review Act, would kill the rule entirely, but it’s unlikely to get much further than the president’s desk, as the Obama administration has already threatened to veto it.
Finalized in May, the Clean Water Rule seeks to clarify the waters that can be regulated by the EPA under the Clean Water Act. The rule, if implemented as written, would expand protection to two million miles of streams and 20 million acres of wetland. Previous court decisions made it unclear whether or not these waters, which supply drinking water to a third of the country, could be regulated under the Clean Water Act.
Opponents have argued that the rule is too broad, encompassing things like irrigation ditches and seasonal ponds. The rule has drawn especially sharp criticism from the agriculture industry, which claims that it would subject farmers to burdensome permitting requirements for things like building fences or applying fertilizers.
The EPA, for its part, denies these claims, arguing that the rule would not require any additional permitting requirements, and would preserve all existing exemptions and exclusions allowed under the Clean Water Act.
Despite the unlikelihood that Ernst’s resolution will actually succeed in overturning the rule, Tuesday’s decision drew swift cries of anger from environmental groups.
“Even under normal circumstances, using the Congressional Review Act to repeal administrative actions is extreme — but using it to undermine clean water safeguards shows an uncommon level of reckless disregard for the health of American families,” Dalal Aboulhosn, senior Washington representative for the Sierra Club, said in a press statement. “This vote proves that the Republican leadership cares more about allowing polluters to do whatever they want to our waters than protecting the 17 million Americans whose drinking water and recreational places are protected by the Clean Water Rule.”
Industrial groups, meanwhile, praised the Senate’s actions, saying that they would continue support efforts to overturn the rule both in Congress and in the courts.
“Protecting our nation’s waters is a priority for manufacturers, but we need a balanced regulatory approach that yields a regulation consistent with law and policy,” Ross Eisenberg, vice president of energy and resources policy for the National Association of Manufacturers said in a statement. “The final waters rule does not meet this standard. Manufacturers will continue to fight this regulation in the courts and will support Congress as it seeks to send this rule back to the Obama Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.”
The National Association of Manufacturers is one of several business groups that have filed lawsuits against the rule. A total of 27 states have also sued over the rule. In late August, a North Dakota federal judge issued a temporary injunction against the rule, preventing it from being implemented in at least 13 states.