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Will the White House agree to weaken EPA? Now everyone disputes the story.

34 Senators, enough to sustain veto, call for continued implementation of the Clean Air Act.

Is the White House, in the quest for a budget deal, quietly preparing to accept some aspects of a House GOP effort to roll back the regulatory power of the Environmental Protection Agency, which would represent a significant weakening of the Obama adminstration’s commitment to combat global warming? So reported the Associated Press, but in a statement sent my way, the White House is denying it….

UPDATE: Dem Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (a member of which was the source on the AP story), has also released a statement denying it: “The anonymous source who contributed to the Associated Press story was inaccurate.”

UPDATE II: The Associated Press, which originally reported this story, did a subsequent version that watered down the original claims, so it seems like there’s no one out there on any side vouching for the original assertion.

That’s the WashPost’s Greg Sargent who blogs at “The Plum Line.” When I first saw the story reported at places like Grist and then Alternet, it seem unlikely and incorrect to me and the folks I know who are familiar with these discussions.

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Because I thought the story was wrong, I didn’t blog on it. But enough readers have raised concerns that it’s clearly worth a post.

I should also note that the Senate vote on the amendments to limit EPA’s power to regulate CO2, which were supposed to be held this week, have been pushed back until next week. At the end, I’ll post a release from the office of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) that make clear The Senate has enough votes to sustain a veto of any bill on this issue.

As for the White House story, Sargent has done the heavy lifting, so I’ll excerpt his story, which continues:

There’s a nugget buried in an AP story on the budget wars that claims the following:

A Democratic lawmaker familiar with a meeting Wednesday between Obama and members of the Congressional Black Caucus said the administration made it clear that some House GOP proposals restricting the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory powers would have to make it into the final bill. In order to characterize the White House’s position, the lawmaker insisted on anonymity because the meeting was private.

It’s not clear which proposals the White House might accept, but those backed by Republicans would block the government from carrying out regulations on greenhouse gases, putting in place a plan to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and from shutting down mountaintop mines it believes will cause too much water pollution.

If true, this would be striking. It would mean the White House may part ways with Chuck Schumer, who has adamantly insisted that Dems will not support any budget deal containing “riders” on Planned Parenthood or weakening the EPA’s regulatory powers. And as Kevin Drum notes, this would also amount to major capitulation: “It would mean that Obama has essentially given up completely on anything other than token action to address global warming.”

Precisely. That’s why it seemed unlikely.

But White House spokesman Clark Stevens emails that the White House is still committed to opposing any EPA “riders”:

As the administration has made clear, the funding bill should not be used to further unrelated policy agendas, and we remain opposed to riders that do that, including as it relates to the environment.

It’s also worth noting that the original AP story said that it wasn’t clear which of the GOP proposals on the EPA the White House was supposedly prepared to support. The original story floated the possibility that the White House might only give on EPA plans to clean up Chesapeake Bay or shut down mountaintop mines “” and not on the core GOP proposal of scuttling EPA’s power to regulate greenhouse gases.

As a side note, even Republicans I’ve spoken with privately concede that they’re well aware that it’s unlikely that the latter is a concession they could win, since it would be very hard for many Congressional Dems to support any budget deal containing it.

It is always possible that the Obama administration will do the wrong thing at the last minute, lord knows, but if they were to stand firm they can certainly block these amendments. And given the the public’s strong support for EPA regulation of greenhouse gases, this is a winning issue if the Administration will do the kind of messaging on it that it has intermittently in the past (see 63% of Americans say “EPA needs to do more to hold polluters accountable and protect the air and water”).

Here’s the release from Sen. Sanders office:

Senators Stand up for Clean Air Act

WASHINGTON, March 31 — Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), John Kerry (D-Mass.) and 30 colleagues today introduced a resolution calling for continued implementation of the Clean Air Act.

In the face of efforts by House Republicans and some senators to weaken the nation’s clean air protections, the resolution which specifies the benefits of the Clean Air Act has 34 original cosponsors who and will continue to seek additional support from their colleagues.

The landmark law saves 160,000 Americans from premature death every year and helps avoid tens of thousands of cases of lung disease, heart attacks, and emergency room visits. The act also has reduced major air pollution by 41 percent over the last 20 years even as the economy grew by 64 percent.

Sanders said, “It is absolutely unconscionable that in the year 2011 the Congress is debating amendments to gut the Clean Air Act and I am going to fight back. I also think that at a time when House Republicans might force a government shutdown unless the EPA backs down from protecting public health, we must not let the budget process be used to deregulate polluters.”

Whitehouse said, “Americans are expecting us to roll up our sleeves and get to work, solving today’s pressing issues — putting America back to work, and reducing the federal deficit. Instead, radical Republicans are using the budget process to push for extreme policy positions that would gut the Clean Air Act and roll back important public health protections. These same Republicans are literally demanding that we compromise our children’s health to get a short-term budget deal.”

Carper said, “For the last forty years, the EPA has use the Clean Air Act to foster economic growth and protect Americans from life threatening air pollution. Since the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, the EPA has saved thousands of lives and saved billions of dollars in health care costs, while keeping electricity rates — adjusted for inflation — constant. At the same time American jobs in engineering and design, as well as in manufacturing, installing and operating pollution control and clean energy technology are being created to meet our clean air needs. Put it another way, the Clean Air Act benefits outweigh the costs by a margin of 30 to 1. Talk about a return on investment. It just doesn’t get much better than that.”

Kerry said, “Ever since Richard Nixon signed it into law, the Clean Air Act has saved tens of thousands of lives by curbing air pollution and helped jumpstart new technologies that created millions of jobs in the process. But somehow our political environment has become so divorced from reality, facts, science and history that today even a commonsense law like the Clean Air Act can be used as a partisan punching bag. This Resolution showcases just some of the Clean Air Act’s many achievements, and I hope it will remind my colleagues that under this law we were able to grow our economy and cut harmful pollution that threatens our families.”

The Senate is expected to vote soon on up to four amendments that would strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to reduce carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act. An amendment by the Senate Republican Leadership would overturn EPA’s scientific finding that greenhouse gas emissions are a public health threat and allow the biggest polluters to spew carbon pollution without restrictions. It also would undermine fuel economy standards that are projected to save drivers of new vehicles up to $2,800 at the gas pump, save more than 2 million barrels of oil per day (roughly as much as the U.S. imports from the Persian Gulf), and create hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

House Republicans are also reportedly pushing for riders attached to their budget bill, which would shut down Clean Air Act enforcement of big polluters’ greenhouse gas emissions, to be included in a congressional budget deal.

Sanders’ resolution is also sponsored by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Environment Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Democrat Conference Secretary Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Sens. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Joe Lieberman (I-Ct.), Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

Of course, 34 is the number of senators needed to block a veto override, if it should come to that (that is, if Obama vetoed a bill that had language restricting EPA).