WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Emboldened by their success wresting concessions from the Obama administration in debt-limit talks, House Republicans now plan an assault of similar vigor on the Environmental Protection Agency.
Republicans, backed by wealthy conservative lobbyists, are determined to stop the EPA and what they see as an activist agenda that is costing jobs and hurting corporate profits.
“Right now for House Republicans one of their important rally cries is that EPA regulations are excessive and even abusive,” said Robert Stavins, director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.
After President Barack Obama’s push for a climate bill in Congress collapsed last year, the EPA was left as the last bastion of hope for his environmental policy.
This led the agency, ironically founded under the Republican administration of Richard Nixon in 1970, to pursue its environmental agenda vigorously. The EPA was considered a toothless tiger under the administration of George W. Bush.
Almost on par with government spending, Republicans galvanized around the issue, using every opportunity, such as congressional hearings, relentlessly to criticize EPA chief Lisa Jackson and stymie her agency’s efforts.
While Republicans face stiff opposition in any legislation to shackle the EPA from the Democrat-controlled Senate and the White House, they do have a number of options, especially in the run-up to the 2012 elections.
And the party has proven adept at outflanking the often disunited Democrats on big issues.
House Republicans could move to cut EPA funding through the appropriations process or through deficit-cutting talks in November as required by the debt-ceiling agreement.
Representative Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was picked by Republicans to be part of the 12-member congressional committee that will decide on cuts needed as part of the debt-ceiling agreement.
He could push hard for savings from the EPA’s budget as he has led the battle against its rules.
Senate Majority leader Harry Reid recently said he sees no threat to the EPA from Upton’s presence on the super-committee.
“I would assume they will make a serious effort to cut back and apply pressure to cut back EPA regulatory activity as part of this budgetary process,” Stavins said.
“I don’t know if they’ll succeed. That will depend on what the Democratic response to that is.”
Representative Ed Whitfield, another leading Republican on energy policy issues, said that outside the debt talks his party will hammer away in hearings and through legislation on its themes that the EPA has been killing jobs and growth.
Whitfield said Democrats, especially those from energy-intensive states such as West Virginia and Ohio, should know it will be a major issue on the campaign trail.
“We want to keep passing things on the House side that would reverse things EPA is doing simply because we’d like to see those 23 Democratic senators up for reelection next year vote on some of this,” Whitfield said.
Of the most contentious proposals, the EPA wants to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the country’s major utilities. But the process has been delayed, in part, some suspect, by Republican pressure.
These rules could hit the bottom lines of such companies as American Electric Power and Duke Energy. Similar regulations are also planned for oil refineries.
In addition, the EPA has been struggling to complete a much-delayed rule on ozone pollution while also pushing new fuel-efficiency standards and measures to cut emissions from oil and gas drilling.
In protest, states and industry groups have slapped the EPA with multiple lawsuits, which could delay implementation of its rules and slow investment in energy-dependent industries.
Republicans have tried a number of legislative moves to hamper the EPA. In April, the House passed a bill designed as a blanket ban on the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions and sent it to the Senate, which voted 50-50 on it, falling short of the super-majority needed.
The House Interior-EPA spending bill introduced last month to cut funding to EPA programs is also pending.
Whitfield, the House Republican, said his party could use a continuing resolution or omnibus bill to staunch the flow of funds from Congress.
A continuing resolution could paralyze the EPA by cutting its current and future spending. Slipping EPA program cuts into a larger budgetary package essential to running the government could be a strategy to force Republican demands into law.
Anti-EPA lobbyists have also been at work. Steve Miller, president of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said his group is pushing hard to persuade Democrats in both chambers to fall in line with Republicans.
Miller said EPA rules regulating air pollution from utilities “would be the most expensive regulation to ever affect our coal-based electricity industry”.
Environmentalists are hopeful that Democrats in the Senate and the threat of a veto from the White House will be able to stop the assault on the country’s environmental laws.
“I think it’s important to know that for all of the saber rattling, nothing of substance has passed Congress,” Jigar Shah, CEO of the environmental nonprofit Carbon War Room, said.
Editing by Russell Blinch and Dale Hudson