By DINA CAPPIELLO
WASHINGTON - Congressional Republicans vowed Wednesday to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from reducing the pollution that contributes to global warming, underscoring the threat with a proposed deep cut to the agency's budget.
"Congress intends to reassert itself in the statutory and regulatory process at EPA and specifically the Clean Air Act," said Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., chair of a House subcommittee on energy and power at the start of a hearing Wednesday on a draft bill that would block the EPA from using the act to control heat-trapping pollution.
During more than two hours of testimony, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told the panel that the legislation "would eliminate portions of the landmark law that all American children and adults rely on to protect them from harmful air pollution." The Obama administration contends the law and compelling scientific evidence on global warming compel the EPA to act.
House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., the author of the measure along with Whitfield, denied that it would weaken the law or limit the federal government's ability to monitor and reduce health-damaging pollution.
At the same time, Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., proposed a sweeping $1.9 billion cut - about 18 percent - to the amount requested for EPA this year by President Barack Obama. Rogers' proposal would also shave millions from EPA programs to boost energy efficiency in household appliances and to collect data on greenhouse gas emissions.
Having failed last year to enact new legislation to curb global warming, the administration is left to use existing law - the Clean Air Act - to fight global warming.
That, Republicans contend, will penalize industries that otherwise could be creating new jobs and raise electricity prices, and they've made the agency a central target of their anti-regulatory agenda.
The agency has been caught before in shifting political winds. But in the 40 years since Republican President Richard Nixon created the federal agency charged with protecting the public from pollution, and Congress nearly unanimously passed laws that have cleaned up the air and water, longtime observers say the atmosphere for the agency has never been more toxic than it is now.
"It's really been quite extreme," said William Ruckelshaus, who was the first EPA administrator under Nixon and later ran the agency under President Ronald Reagan, of the rhetoric being aimed at the agency this time around. "What are they supposed to do? Sit there and do nothing?"
The latest and perhaps most draconian attack came from former House speaker and possible 2012 GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who called for abolishing the EPA and replacing it with an organization more friendly to business.
That followed Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin's use of a rifle to blast a hole through legislation limiting the gases blamed for global warming in a campaign commercial. The stunt helped him win West Virginia's open Senate seat.
Mike McKenna, a Republican strategist, says Gingrich and Manchin are outliers in a more reasoned debate over how big the global warming problem is and the different approaches for dealing with it.
"I don't think the (political) base is ready to throw EPA out the window," McKenna said. "There are plenty of people across the country who want EPA ratcheted down and think it has gone too far, too fast."
Lawmakers of both parties have already introduced a dozen bills aimed at weakening, delaying or blocking pollution regulations. Business groups invited by congressional Republicans to describe their biggest regulatory burdens singled out EPA rules more than any others.
The main target is the agency's use of the Clean Air Act to control emissions of greenhouse gases, a law that the Supreme Court said in 2007 could be used to fight global warming.
In 2009, the EPA under President Barack Obama put the law in motion when it concluded climate changes being caused by pollution from industries, automobiles and other sources burning fossil fuels are a threat to public health and welfare. Some Republicans - and some Democrats from industrial states - aren't convinced that's the case.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the committee, and author of the climate legislation that passed the House in 2009, said Wednesday that while Republicans could rewrite the nation's laws, they couldn't rewrite the overwhelming scientific evidence that shows global warming is a threat.
"The underlying premise of this bill is that climate change is a hoax," Waxman said. "Protecting public health and preventing climate change should not be a partisan issue. The science hasn't changed in the last two years; in fact, it's only gotten stronger."
There's also growing resistance to a host of other regulations expected from the agency. Some were initiated by Obama, but others are the result of courts throwing out Bush-era regulations. Still others stem from reviews required by law to update standards to reflect the latest science. They cover everything from ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog, to coal ash disposal, to rules aimed at reducing pollution blowing into downwind states and from industrial boilers.
Whitfield said the number of regulations out recently or in development made the Obama administration EPA the most aggressive in recent history.
The EPA's defenders say the agency is simply following statutes aimed at protecting people's health - something they say has strong support and is necessary for a healthy economy.
House Energy and Commerce Committee: http://energycommerce.house.gov