President Bush's bid to rewrite federal air pollution laws ground to a halt in Congress yesterday when Republicans were unable to overcome objections in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that the bill would weaken the central pillars of the nation's environmental protection framework.
The setback is a body blow to the White House's prized plan and a victory for environmentalists who have long said that the "Clear Skies" bill is a euphemism for rolling back safeguards at the behest of industry.
The Environmental Protection Agency will issue new regulations today and next week to set limits on air pollutants, but the rules will not change the provisions in the Clean Air Act that would have been revised by Clear Skies.
The panel deadlocked over fundamental differences on how to balance the desire for cleaner air with the cost to industry and jobs.
Republicans accused Democrats of obstructing effective and common-sense legislation to deny Bush an important environmental victory. Democrats, joined by Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) and Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.), said the negotiations were conducted in bad faith, that the pollution-control targets were too low and that the bill contained irresponsible loopholes.
The 9 to 9 vote that blocked the bill from going to the Senate floor followed weeks of postponements marked by lowball tactics and high drama. Although neither side said the bill is doomed, they remain far apart, and future negotiations will have to bridge deep mistrust and radical disagreements.
"This bill has been killed by the environmental extremists, who care more about continuing the litigation-friendly status quo and making a political statement about carbon dioxide than they do about reducing air pollution," said Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.).
Jeffords retorted: "This legislation denies plain scientific evidence of human health damage from toxic air pollution and of global warming from greenhouse gas emissions."
A central disagreement was whether the bill -- originally aimed at reducing the emissions of acid-rain-causing sulfur dioxide, smog-forming nitrogen oxides, and toxic mercury from coal-fired power plants and other industries -- should also address carbon dioxide emissions linked to global warming. That issue cost the Republican majority Chafee's crucial vote, said Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio).
"Chafee thinks this is the biggest problem facing the world, and the chairman [Inhofe] has a sign in his office saying this is a hoax," Voinovich said as he threw up his hands. With other Senate business piling up, Democrats demanding new analyses that could take months and next year's elections looming, Voinovich and Inhofe indicated the odds are long that Clear Skies would return to the agenda anytime soon. "There is a limited window here," Voinovich said.
Without alluding to the vote, Bush reiterated his support for the Clear Skies measure in a speech in Ohio yesterday, saying that the EPA rules will be a poor substitute for legislation.
Democrats said they will continue to press for compromises. Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) suggested that an agreement is still possible -- even for controls on carbon. One possibility would involve setting voluntary caps on carbon emissions that would harden into a mandatory limit if industry failed to meet the voluntary targets, he said.
But in a briefing a month ago, James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, flatly said: "What will never fly is a mandatory cap on carbon."
Both Republicans and Democrats marshaled an array of supporters, cited the importance of addressing air pollution through bipartisan legislation and accused the other side of intransigence.
Connaughton and several Republicans said that overly stringent measures would raise the price of power, hit seniors hard and cause polluting industries to leave U.S. shores for countries with lower standards. Voinovich and Inhofe cited support from some unions and seniors organizations, along with most industry groups.
Democrats were backed by environmental groups, the attorneys general of 14 states and two bipartisan groups of local officials -- the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials. S. William Becker, executive director of both organizations, said Inhofe had unfairly targeted them for a financial inquiry after they announced their opposition to Bush's bill.
Critics of the plan said it would weaken existing law that calls for companies to install emission controls in old power plants when they are modernized, allows states to go to court over pollution from plants in neighboring states, and provides specific protections for national parks.
Next week, the EPA is scheduled to issue a regulation addressing mercury pollution -- a proposal that is also controversial and is likely to be taken straight to court by environmental groups. Environmental advocates are more positive about the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR), which the EPA will announce today, to control sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.
Like the Clear Skies proposal, both EPA rules involve cap-and-trade schemes that allow industries to decide where to focus pollution control efforts. The CAIR rule may not go far enough fast enough, environmentalists said, but it is superior to Bush's bill.
"Clear Skies was a half-step forward and two steps backward," said Conrad Schneider, a spokesman for the environmental coalition Clear the Air. "The CAIR rule is just a half-step forward."
Staff writer Jim VandeHei contributed to this report.