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Panel Kills Bid to Curb State Pollution Law

November 20, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators on Wednesday delivered a win on environmental regulation for California and a challenge to the Bush administration on media ownership.

The actions came as House and Senate bargainers began crafting a $285-billion spending bill to fund government departments, several independent agencies and the District of Columbia government.

In a significant victory for environmentalists, the conferees rejected a Senate-passed provision that would have blocked efforts by California and other states to cut pollution produced by small gasoline engines, such as lawn mowers and chain saws.

That action, reversing a Senate vote last week, was a victory for California's congressional delegation and for Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state's new governor. Lawmakers said the nascent Schwarzenegger administration lobbied against the provision, arguing that the state could lose federal highway funding if it is unable to adequately cut smog.

Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.) said Schwarzenegger administration officials "made it very clear" that California would suffer if the Senate-passed smog provision were to become law.

Backers of the provision said they would renew their attempt to block or undo state regulation of engines under 50 horsepower. But Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she would fight what she called "a major cutback of the Clean Air Act."

On media ownership, negotiators approved a amendment to the spending bill that would overturn a Federal Communications Commission decision in June to allow a television network to own enough stations to reach up to 45% of viewers nationwide.

Approved without recorded dissent and over strong Bush administration opposition, the rider would keep the ownership cap at 35%.

The FCC provision still faces several hurdles. Before it can become law, lawmakers must draft and file a final version of the spending bill -- expected to occur within days -- and the House and Senate must approve it and send it to Bush. Votes could begin this week.

Bush could block the bill with a veto; the White House issued a statement Nov. 10 threatening one if Congress attempted to roll back the FCC regulations.

But lawmakers on the House-Senate appropriations conference committee challenged that threat. "Right now, in this process, it's the final word," Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told reporters after Wednesday's action.

"It's in," Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said of the FCC rollback provision. Asked whether it could be removed, Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) said: "Probably not."

The FCC provision was not the spending bill's only controversy. Lawmakers remained deadlocked over an administration proposal to strip many workers of the right to collect overtime pay.

Critics contend that the proposed Labor Department rule would eliminate eligibility for overtime pay for up to 8 million workers in a variety of professions. Advocates acknowledge that 644,000 white-collar workers would lose time-and-a-half compensation for working more than 40 hours in a week but claim that other classes of workers would gain overtime protection through the new regulations.

Democrats and at least one pivotal Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, demanded that the spending bill include a Senate-passed provision to block the overtime proposal.

Republican congressional leaders and administration officials were equally adamant that Congress would risk a Bush veto if it intervened to delay the Labor Department's proposed rule.

The legislation at issue would fund the District of Columbia's government, the departments of Labor, Education, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Commerce, State, Justice, Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and several independent agencies, including the FCC, for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

On one prominent education issue, negotiators were in accord: The bill would be used to create the first federally funded school voucher program.

A proposal backed by the Bush administration would set aside $13 million to help low-income parents in the District of Columbia pay for private- or parochial-school tuition. The House approved the proposal earlier this year; the Senate, stymied by Democratic opposition to vouchers, did not. But Democrats conceded they would not be able to stop the program through the spending bill.

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