Forget the "fiscal cliff." Some Republicans and business groups see signs of a "regulatory cliff" that they say could be just as damaging to the economy.
For months, federal agencies and the White House have sidetracked dozens of major regulations that cover everything from power-plant pollution and workplace safety to a crackdown on Wall Street.
The rules had been largely put on hold during the presidential campaign as the White House sought to quiet Republican charges that President Obama was an overzealous regulator who is killing U.S. jobs. But since the election, the Obama administration has quietly reopened the regulations pipeline.
In recent weeks, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed rules to update water-quality guidelines for beaches and other recreational waters, and deal with runoff from logging roads. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, meanwhile, has proposed long-delayed regulations requiring automakers to include event data recorders — better known as "black boxes" — in all new cars and light trucks beginning in 2014.
The administration also has initiated several rules to implement its health care overhaul law, including a new fee to cushion the cost of covering people with pre-existing conditions.
Some GOP lawmakers fear the worst.
Mr. Obama has spent the past year "punting" on a slew of job-killing regulations that will be unleashed in a second term, predicted Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican. With the election over, it's now "full speed ahead" for federal rules limiting greenhouse gas emissions, requiring cleaner gasoline and putting controls on drilling for oil and natural gas, said Mr. Inhofe, the senior Republican on the Senate Environment Committee.
Environmental groups say fears of a second-term regulatory deluge are overstated.
"At this point, it still has the appearance of being more of a trickle than a flood," said Frank O'Donnell, president of the environmental group Clean Air Watch. "I don't see the hard evidence" of an avalanche of rules.
He said the EPA is principally focused on meeting court-ordered deadlines, such as Friday's deadline for a rule intended to reduce the amount of soot that can be released into the air. Other high-profile rules and initiatives are being rolled out more slowly, if at all, he added.
Randy Rabinowitz, director of regulatory policy at OMB Watch, a private group that tracks federal rules, said regulations now being released are long overdue — in some cases months or even years after federal guidelines say they should have been published.
"We've been disappointed that Obama has been a tepid regulator" in his first term, Ms. Rabinowitz said, adding that she hopes the administration "moves more vigorously to protect the public from harm" in a second term.
"I would love for the election to be interpreted as a mandate for Obama to move forward with stronger protections for the public," she said.
A spokeswoman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, the gatekeeper for federal regulations, said the administration is focused on protecting public health and safety while avoiding unnecessary burdens on business.
But some Republicans and business groups say new regulations, on top of rules already issued by the administration, could strangle the economy just as it begins to grow.