Senate fight over EPA resolution to resume first week after recess

The Senate this week will return to a pivotal, long-simmering debate over the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

The debate will center in a Thursday vote on a disapproval resolution by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) that would block the EPA from enforcing emissions rules under the Clean Air Act. Murkowski objects to the EPA’s authority and believes that Congress should set such standards instead of the executive branch.

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Although the resolution is not expected to pass, Murkowski is bringing the resolution forward under the Congressional Review Act, which prevents any filibusters and only requires 51 votes for passage. Murkowski's measure has 41 formal co-sponsors, including Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) told The Hill that Murkowski's resolution is "a distraction."

"The Supreme Court has affirmed the EPA's right to address greenhouse gas emissions. But more importantly, all the science is staring us in the face saying we've got to act," Kerry said. "If you don't want the EPA to do it, then the Senate needs to provide some adult leadership to pass a comprehensive climate and energy bill instead of keeping our heads in the sand and then tying the hands of the EPA."

Even if the resolution somehow squeezes through the Senate, it is unlikely to pass the House and would face a certain veto by President Barack Obama. Still, the possibility of even a close vote could prove embarrassing to Senate Democrats, just weeks before Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Kerry plan to bring climate change legislation to the Senate floor.

Specifically, Murkowski’s measure would veto the EPA’s power to regulate greenhouse gases under the “endangerment finding” it issued last December. That finding would lead to regulations that “will ultimately endanger job creation, economic growth and America’s competitiveness,” Murkowski said, and is opposed even some by congressional Democrats who prefer legislative action instead.

“Given the widespread support for legislation, and the likely consequences of regulation, I believe these Clean Air Act regulations should be taken off the table,” Murkowski wrote on The Hill's Congress Blog on Wednesday. “My decision to introduce this measure is rooted in a desire to see Congress – not unelected bureaucrats – lead the way in addressing climate change.”

Murkowski’s resolution comes just weeks after the EPA issued a rule clarifying how it intends to apply regulations under the Clean Air Act to large-scale emissions factories and refineries — not smaller-scale polluters such as schools or small businesses — starting next year. The action was seen as a signal that the EPA is planning to take an aggressive stance on regulations next year in the absence of any congressional action.

Kerry and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) have already introduced climate-change legislation that Reid plans to bring forward in July, and Kerry last month described the EPA’s action as a “last call” to lawmakers.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed that view in an interview with The Hill two weeks ago, saying that climate regulations should be done by Congress, not the Obama administration, to prevent policy fluctuations with administration turnover.

Reid issued a directive to four key Senate committee chairmen on Thursday to solicit ideas for the Senate’s climate change bill that would be taken up after the week-long July 4 recess. Reid wants the Senate bill to restructure civil and criminal penalties for environmental disasters such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, since current law sets caps that were quickly exceeded by the BP spill. A Democratic caucus meeting is scheduled for mid-June to determine how to proceed with the bill in July.

The coming week in the Senate will also bring three votes on Monday on judicial nominations, followed by action on a two-part tax extenders bill possibly as early as Tuesday. The extenders bill would prolong unemployment benefits and prevent a cut in reimbursements to physicians who treat Medicaid patients.

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