A group of 28 Republican lawmakers from Western states is fighting efforts by Democrats in the House and Senate to quietly expand the scope of the Clean Water Act, the federal government's main tool for regulating the quality of the nation's waterways.
The lawmakers sent a letter Tuesday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada opposing efforts to rush through Congress the Clean Water Restoration Act, a bill that would allow the federal government to protect all waters of the U.S. from pollution, not just the "navigable" waters covered in current law.
The letter says that the lawmakers would vote against any legislation that contains the expansion.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed the legislation in June, and the House may consider a similar measure before the end of the year.
The House is scheduled to go on vacation at the end of next week, prompting Republican fears that the legislation could be tacked on to another bill on the schedule and passed in the session's closing hours, said Melissa Subbotin, a spokeswoman for the Congressional Western Caucus, which wrote the letter.
Lobbyists said the measure could be attached to an unrelated bill with strong support, such as a spending bill for defense programs. House lawmakers are trying to pass the defense bill this year.
Ms. Subbotin said that Republicans' opposition and the letter are a direct response to a story published Friday by The Washington Times on the "navigable" water issue. She added that GOP lawmakers were surprised by the House Democratic leadership's ambitions to move the measure so quickly.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James L. Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat, is writing the House's version of the measure. He has not introduced it yet, but a spokeswoman for the committee told The Times, "Congressman Oberstar has told the committee to prepare to move a bill this year."
Mr. Oberstar and supporters of the legislation say the provision is needed to clarify the scope of the Clean Water Act, the primary tool the Environmental Protection Agency uses to protect the nation's waters. They say the interpretation of the act was thrown into question after two Supreme Court cases in recent years substantially limited the agency's authority under the 1972 law.
Mary Kerr, a spokeswoman for the House transportation panel, said Mr. Oberstar was not seeking to expand federal regulatory powers. He instead wants to return the interpretation of the act to its historical definition, she said.
By deleting the word "navigable" in the act, the EPA, in conjunction with the Army Corps of Engineers, would have the authority to regulate all bodies of water, from creeks and small ponds to major rivers and lakes. Federal agencies currently regulate lakes large enough for ship traffic and their adjacent waterways.
But opponents, including a number of leading business groups, see the deletion of the word "navigable" as a stealth federal power grab that would harm business activity.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation's largest agriculture lobby, the National Mining Association and other business interest groups have formed the "Waters Advocacy Coalition" to lead the charge against the legislation.
The Republican lawmakers say they were spurred to act in part because of complaints they heard back in their states and districts.
"The concern we hear back home is that this legislation would grant virtually unlimited regulatory control over all wet areas within a state. This bill attempts to trump state's rights and pre-empts state and local governments from making local land- and water-use decisions," the letter says.
Specialists say the legislation would extend government regulation to 20 million acres of the nation's so-called "isolated" wetlands and 59 percent of the nation's streams that do not flow year-round.
"This legislation will hurt states and communities across America. The consequences and impacts of the Clean Water Restoration Act deserve a thorough and open debate in Congress," the lawmakers wrote.
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