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McCaskill joins Republicans to stop clean water rule

Linda Lockhart | St. Louis Public Radio

U.S. Sen. ClaireMcCaskill, D-Mo., is one of only three Democrats who have signed onto a bill that would scrap a new rule governing the Clean Water Act. Republicans have assailed the so-called “Waters of the United States” rule as Obama administration “regulatory overreach,” a quickly emerging theme for GOP campaigns in next year’s elections.

Critics say both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corp of Engineers are “going too far” in attempting to exert authority they say is well beyond the original intent of Congress when it passed the act in 1972. Three Supreme Court cases since then have only added to the confusion of where the agencies’ authority extends -- prompting time consuming, case-by-case examinations of factors when regulators attempt to enforce the act.

Credit Linda Lockhart | St. Louis Public Radio

Both agencies say they need the new rule to clarify their jurisdiction in the wake of those Supreme Court cases, butMcCaskilland others say the rule only adds to the confusion. “The way the rule has been drafted has left too many things open ended, which is causing concern,”McCaskilllsaid.

She said she heard numerous concerns from farmers and others as she traveled throughout Missouri on an "ag tour" during the congressional break in August.

In her news release announcing her opposition to the new rule,McCaskillsaid the EPA needs to “go back to the drawing board” and argued the new rule goes too far. In comments to St. Louis Public Radio on Tuesday, just hours before a procedural vote on the issue,McCaskillfocused more on the perceived concerns caused by the rule than on any specifics with the rule itself. “Maybe it's not all justified, but (the concern) is real; and if in fact the EPA is not trying to go as far as the opponents say they’re trying to go, then let’s draft it more carefully so it alleviates those concerns,”McCaskillsaid.

The move to cut off endless debate on the bill fell three votes short of the 60 vote threshold necessary to consider legislation in the Senate. All 54 Republicans, McCaskill, Joe Donnell, D-Ind. and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., voted to consider the bill.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., was the only area senator to vote against the procedural move to bring the bill to a vote. “My understanding is they’ve (EPA and Army Corps) had 400 hearings and 800,000 public comments on this matter. It is still a matter of concern to farmers in my state, but … I believe the statements from the EPA are clear, that the Waters of the USA (rule) will not affect farmers in the ordinary course of their business.”

While some Republicans want to do away with the rule all together,McCaskill says she will not support an effort to “cancel the rule out.” She says it shouldn't be taken for granted that children in America don't die when they drink water out of the tap.  "We’ve got to support the EPA and its basic function, but I do think that this rule should be fine-tuned.”

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., was an early co-sponsor of the bill and frequently speaks out on executive branch regulations he sees as overly burdensome to citizens and businesses. Blunt is up for re-election next year.  Of the three Democratic co-sponsors, bothMcCaskilland Donnelly come from states where Democrats are trying to pick-up current Republican seats in the Senate. Their support of the bill and opposition to the rule itself would appear to help nullify the rule as a demarcation issue between Republicans and Democrats. Missouri Democratic Secretary of State JasonKanderis challenging Blunt and has already expressed concerns about the rule.

The White House opposes the legislative effort to force the rulemaking process back to square one and issued a Statement of Administration Policy on the bill. “The agencies’ rulemaking, grounded in science and the law, is essential to ensure clean water for future generations, and is responsive to calls for rule making from the Congress, industry, and community stakeholders as well as decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court.  The final rule has been through an extensive public engagement process.” 

The White House statement says that, should the bill get to the presidents desk, senior advisers will recommend a veto.

Copyright 2015 St. Louis Public Radio

Howard covers news from Washington, D.C., of importance to the St. Louis region. His beat includes following the legislative activities of area lawmakers on Capitol Hill as well as developments from The White House, Supreme Court and numerous federal agencies and departments. Prior to joining St. Louis Public Radio, he was a longtime newscaster and producer at NPR in Washington. Howard also has deep roots in the Midwest. Earlier in his career, he was statehouse bureau chief for Illinois Public Radio, where he directed news coverage of state government and politics for a 13-station network.