WASHINGTON – Congress on Wednesday approved a resolution to overturn the Biden administration’s protections for the nation’s waterways that Republicans have criticized as a burden on business, advancing a measure that President Joe Biden has promised to veto.
Republicans have targeted the Biden administration’s protections for thousands of small streams, wetlands and other waterways, labeling it an environmental overreach that harms businesses, developers and farmers.
They used the Congressional Review Act that allows Congress to block recently enacted executive branch regulations. The Senate voted in favor 53 to 43 Wednesday to give final legislative approval to the measure. Four Democrats and Independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona joined Republicans to vote in favor of the resolution.
“The overreach, basically, it’s unreal,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D.-W. Va., a critic of some of the White House's environmental policies.
The Senate vote is the latest development in a long-running fight over the definition of “waters of the United States,” which establishes the breadth of the Clean Water Act’s protections. Environmentalists and the Biden administration have pushed to broaden the definition and protect more waterways from pollution while right-leaning groups and the Trump administration have argued that protecting fewer waterways would benefit builders, farmers and business.
In early March, the Republican-controlled House approved the resolution 227-198. A Congressional Review Act resolution requires a simple majority in both chambers and can’t be filibustered.
Water protections are “very symbolic and polarized,” according to Julian Gonzalez, legislative counsel with Earthjustice. He said moderate Democrats may vote for the resolution to show their independence from the Biden administration’s environmental agenda.
“The perceived impact won't be as significant because the president will veto it, so they can sort of achieve their goal without causing that much damage,” Gonzalez said, adding that supporting efforts to weaken the Clean Water Act are shortsighted.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said the Biden administration's rule is protective and fair.
“The Biden rule requires us to be good neighbors, and stewards of our planet, while also providing flexibility for those who need it,” said Carper said.
In December, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers repealed the Trump administration’s business-friendly rule that scaled back protections. Since the Biden administration enacted its broader rule, Republicans have targeted it in the courts and Congress.
This month, a federal judge paused the rule in Texas and Idaho in a win for Republican legal challenges. Right-leaning states have argued in court the rule is too vague and would create unacceptable economic hardships.
The Supreme Court is also considering a related case brought by an Idaho couple who are fighting a requirement that they receive a permit to build their home near a lake after the EPA determined that part of their property was a regulated wetland. The justices heard arguments in Sackett v. EPA in October and a decision is expected in the next few months.
“Expansion of federal authority and an encroachment on states’ rights and private lands is the precise reason we have seen overwhelming support for my (Congressional Review Act) resolution," said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.
Democrats hold a 51-49 Senate majority, but Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., is in the hospital being treated for depression and is unavailable for votes. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are also absent.
The Biden administration's rule is built on a pre-2015 definition of “waters of the United States,” but is more streamlined and includes updates to reflect court opinions, scientific understanding and decades of experience, EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Radhika Fox previously told The Associated Press. She added that the rule modestly increases protections for some streams, wetlands, lakes and ponds.
The new rule repeated the Trump-era rule that was finalized in 2020 and was broadly supported by farm bureaus and business that wanted less regulation on private property. Environmental groups said the Trump-era rules left too many waterways unprotected from pollutants.
Democrats Manchin, Jon Tester of Montana and both senators from Nevada, Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto, supported the resolution. Sinema also voted in favor.
Phillis reported from St. Louis.
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