Search is on for new Dem senator to champion chemical safety bill

Lobbyists for environmental and business groups are looking for a Democratic senator to champion the chemical safety legislation left behind by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

Several advocates said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), along with Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), could take up the mantle for the legislation that Lautenberg crafted with Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) to reform the 37-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act.

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K Street representatives said the loss of Lautenberg, a respected public safety champion, has slowed work on the bill, though lobbying is beginning to pick up once again.

“Sen. Gillibrand has a big role to play here,” said Andy Igrejas, director of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, a coalition of environmental, labor and public health groups. “Sen. Lautenberg had been working with her with the idea that she was going to be the heir apparent if they didn’t get it done this Congress.”

With broad bipartisan support, the bill — known as the Chemical Safety Improvement Act — has grabbed the attention of major industry and environmental groups who have both pushed Capitol Hill for several years to modernize the outdated law.

“It is a very balanced, constructive, science-based proposal for reform. We have been working on this for a better part of five years,” said former Rep. Cal Dooley (D-Calif.), president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council (ACC).

The legislation crafted that Lautenberg crafted with Vitter would have all active chemicals evaluated for safety and give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to block unsafe chemicals from entering the market. The bill would also allow the agency to obtain information from chemical manufacturers, among other provisions.

Business groups strongly support the chemical bill, saying it would give them the certainty they need from the government, and are lobbying hard for passage.

In a statement Tuesday, the American Alliance for Innovation — which includes the ACC, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Retail Federation, among others — said the bill “provides clear direction for EPA to create a transparent, efficient and sensible process to manage the safety of chemicals in commerce.”

Environmental and green groups aligned with Democrats are divided over whether the bill is the right fix for the antiquated Toxic Substances Control Act.

The Environmental Defense Fund has backed the legislation, but several environmental and public health groups bristled at the bill, arguing it doesn’t fit with Lautenberg’s legacy.

They argue the Safe Chemicals Act, another chemical safety bill that the late senator introduced earlier this year, is stronger, and say the compromise legislation with Vitter could preempt strong state laws like in California while failing to protect children and pregnant women from dangerous substances.

“The proposed legislation fails to improve the health and safety protections missing from current law,” said the Center for Effective Government in a statement last week. “The earlier bill should be the senator’s legacy.”

Igrejas’s coalition cannot support the Lautenberg-Vitter bill as it is now but is pushing for changes.

“I’m optimistic that we could get those improvements. I think industry can live with those,” Igrejas said.

The Lautenberg-Vitter bill has 20 co-sponsors in the Senate, nine of whom are Republicans. His earlier chemical safety bill introduced this year has more co-sponsors —28 — though all caucus with Democrats.

An individual with an environmental group said Gillibrand and Udall are committed as co-sponsors to “seeing a way to move forward.”

“There is a lot of energy among co-sponsors and — despite the concerns of the environmental community — it can move forward with changes to address the concerns that [those groups] have with the bill,” said the individual.

Dooley mentioned Gillibrand and Udall when asked how the bill could move forward without Lautenberg.

“There are numerous [Senate Environment and Public Works Committee] members who are co-sponsoring the legislation, notably Tom Udall and Sen. Gillibrand, and as well as members of the Senate Democratic leadership,” Dooley said.

A spokesman for Gillibrand said the senator is focusing this week on work at the Senate Armed Services Committee to reform the military justice system while her office looks for a path forward for the Safe Chemicals Act.

Udall said senators should forge ahead on chemical safety legislation.

“I believe we should move forward on legislation by working with Chairman [Barbara] Boxer, co-sponsors of the Chemical Safety Improvement Act of 2013 and co-sponsors of the original Lautenberg bill to build on the political momentum he created for us,” Udall said in a statement to The Hill.

The legislation is moving out of a transition phase. Lobbyists on K Street are still sharing a Dear Colleague letter in support of the bill that bears Lautenberg’s signature, and many had stopped lobbying for the bill last week after the senator passed away.

“It’s awkward right now because we are in this in-between place,” said one lobbyist working for the chemical industry. “My question is, when is Gillibrand going to take over and reintroduce the bill with her name on it?”

“Certainly with Sen. Lautenberg’s passing, there has been a little bit of a time-out, but I have continued to be pleased by the response by the co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle,” Dooley said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, will have an important role to play if the bill is to move forward.

“Any analysis of [Boxer’s] leverage shows it has now increased. Given that she often agrees with the environmental community, that can be only good for health and environmental advocates,” Igrejas said.

Boxer’s office shared a statement from the senator, saying: “I plan to look at all the proposals on this important issue. In Frank’s memory, we will come up with something really good.”