Washington Digest: Senate fails to overturn EPA water rule

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans failed last week in their efforts to repeal a federal water regulation that they claim would vastly expand what lands the Environmental Protection Agency oversees under the Clean Water Act.

Congress last year approved a measure to overturn the clean water rule but President Barack Obama vetoed it. A two-thirds majority is needed in both the House and Senate to override a veto. The override effort ended in the Senate on a procedural vote of 52-40. Three Democrats voted in support of the override while one Republican — Sen. Susan Collins of Maine — voted against it.

The Clean Water Rule was finalized in 2015 to clarify what bodies of water are regulated under the federal Clean Water Act, expanding the definition beyond rivers, lakes and streams that are navigable to include those that feed into navigable waterways.

The change has drawn intense criticism from rural, agriculture states that believe it could lead to onerous permitting requirements.

“We all want clean water. That is not disputable,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa. “However, this rule is not about clean water. It is a regulatory power grab that harms our farmers, ranchers, small businesses, manufacturers, and homebuilders.”

EPA officials say the rule is needed and won’t impose heavy requirements on farmers. Senate Democrats argued that the rule simply clarifies what had been a longstanding understanding of what waters are covered under the Clean Water Act providing certainty to what is covered that had otherwise been lost due to court challenges.

“It does not pave new ground,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. “It is basically what the stakeholders and the public thought was the law before the Supreme Court cases, which added to the uncertainty.”

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., voted to block the veto override. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., voted in favor of the override.

Syrian refugees

A bill to require tighter screening of Syrian and Iraqi refugees was blocked in the Senate on a procedural vote, with most Democrats in opposition.

The legislation had swiftly advanced in the House last year after the Paris terrorist attacks raised concerns that ISIS might try to exploit the current refugee program to carry out a similar attack in the United States. More than 2,000 Syrian refugees have come to the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001.

The Obama administration has opposed the bill, saying it is “untenable” to require the secretary of Homeland Security, FBI director and director of national intelligence to personally confirm each applicant from Syria and Iraq as posing no threat. The current screening process takes between 18 and 24 months to complete.

Senate Democrats complained that the legislation simply builds on the fear-mongering that is being trumpeted by certain Republican presidential candidates.

“It is unfortunate that the fear and xenophobia being peddled by some Republican candidates for President is now being given time on the Senate floor,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “Instead of solving the real problems facing Americans … we are debating a strawman inspired by Donald Trump’s baseless rhetoric.”

In the wake of the San Bernardino, Calif., shootings last month, Trump proposed a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the United States.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., argued in favor of a more robust screening process, saying the public is rightfully concerned that terrorists could exploit the immigration program to enter the United States and noting that Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson had expressed the same concern.

“I understand the political pressure to oppose this balanced bill may be intense, but it is also intensely shortsighted,” McConnell said. “Boosting confidence in our nation’s vetting process is critical for our citizens, just as it is critical for every refugee who truly needs our help. Our Democratic friends know a cloud of unfair stigmatization threatens to hang over legitimate refugees so long as Democrats block common-sense safeguards to weed out ISIL sympathizers.”

The Senate voted 55-43 to advance the bill, falling five votes shy of the needed 60-vote majority. No Republican opposed it while two Democrats supported it.

Heller voted in favor of the bill. Reid voted against it.

Contact Peter Urban at purban@reviewjournal.com or at 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @PUrbanDC.

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