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Environmental Issues No Pushover for Bush

Even with GOP holding the House and Senate, president's goal of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge may be elusive.

November 09, 2002|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Even though Republicans will control both houses of Congress, President Bush will face significant obstacles next year as he tries to push some of his highest-profile environmental initiatives.

Bush's goal of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil and gas development may prove as elusive as ever, according to environmentalists, lawmakers from both parties, and their aides.

At least one new Republican senator, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, is likely to join a pack of seven or eight others who oppose the president's plan. That's more than enough to offset the Republicans' slim edge in the new Senate.

And the president's legislative prescription for air pollution from coal-fired power plants will still face significant and possibly insuperable opposition.

Moderate Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island probably will make it very difficult for the president to pass his air pollution plan out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Chafee often votes with the Democrats on the committee, turning a 10-8 Republican majority into a 9-9 deadlock.

Chafee supports more aggressive clean-air plans, which, unlike the administration's, regulate emissions of carbon dioxide. Most scientists consider carbon dioxide a major contributor to global warming.

"To the extent that the administration overplays its hand and tries to dismantle fundamental environmental protections, they're going to find that the checks are going to come from their own party and from both houses," said Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation, an environmental group.

But while some high-priority legislative changes might remain out of reach, the Bush administration is likely to find a more clear path to curtailing environmental regulations. Easier budget negotiations, less congressional oversight and friendlier courts all will work in the administration's favor.

"The danger in many of these issues may not be the direct efforts to weaken laws so much as the efforts to undermine the law by changes to the budget process or regulatory reforms," said Gregory Wetstone, director of advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who sits on the Environment Committee, said committee Democrats could block Bush with Chafee's support.

"But that's not going to stop them," she said. "They will find backdoor ways to get accomplished what they want to get accomplished."

One way could be through the House-Senate conference committees that write final versions of legislation after the House and Senate have acted separately. Republicans will now choose the senators as well as the House members on those committees, and that could enable them to insert the president's pet programs into popular bills.

For instance, the administration is likely to renew its effort to exempt the Pentagon from an array of environmental laws. One possible strategy: Attach these provisions to the annual defense spending bill, which usually attracts a substantial majority for final passage.

On some issues, the administration will get its way unless Congress acts affirmatively to block it. This is notably the case with regulatory changes -- and here, Congress will have a much harder time blocking the administration.

Soon after Bush took office, for example, the House and the Senate voted to block the administration from weakening the standard for arsenic in drinking water.

"When they lost control of the Senate, the Democrats lost this power," said William Kovacs, a vice president of the U.S. Chambers of Commerce. "This is the one power that they had that could harm implementation of administration policy."

Without this tool, Democrats and environmentalists probably will be unable to kill the Bush administration's effort to give major air polluters more leeway to meet the requirement that state-of-the-art pollution control devices accompany significant modifications of industrial plants.

Kovacs predicted that attempts to stop Bush's plan would not get far. The big winners will be coal-burning utility plants, which bear the brunt of the state-of-the-art requirement.

Another avenue open to the administration in the new Congress involves reducing the budgets for enforcing environmental laws.

"If the laws are not carefully monitored and enforced and agencies aren't funded, the incentives for corporations to fully comply disappears," Wetstone said.

The election also might help the administration overcome another important source of resistance to its environmental policies: the courts.

Federal judges have slowed or stopped the administration's efforts to log national forests, explore for oil and gas in red-rock wilderness areas and test sonar equipment in the oceans. The Republican Senate majority increases the likelihood that the Bush administration will gain Senate approval of its judgeship nominees quickly.

Boxer, who sees herself as one of the primary opponents of Bush's environmental agenda, said her job has suddenly become much harder. The administration's environmental actions, she says, will turn the electorate against Bush in time for the 2004 presidential election.

"I'm going to do everything I can to throw myself in the way of what they're trying to do; it's going to be very hard," she said.

"I think they're going to try to run roughshod over the environment because they represent corporate interests. I think they're going to run right into the values of the American people, and they'll suffer for it in '04."

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