Democrats have blocked a Senate bill—co-authored by Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana—that would have forced the Obama administration to withdraw new federal rules to protect smaller streams, tributaries and wetlands from development and pollution.
Supporters of the legislation—and opponents of the rules—did not get the 60 votes needed Tuesday to stop debate and consider the bill. The vote was 57-41, meaning Democrats have blocked the bill, for now.
Most Democrats say the Obama administration rules will safeguard drinking water for 117 million Americans and should remain in place. The White House threatened a veto of the bill, saying the regulations are "essential to ensure clean water for future generations."
But Republicans and a handful of Democrats from rural states, including Donnelly, say they fear a steady uptick in federal regulation of every stream and ditch. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor that the regulations are "a cynical and overbearing power grab dressed awkwardly as some clean water measure."
Donnelly said creating effective water protection rules mean working together and using "the feedback from the people who work with the land every day."
"Countless Hoosier farmers are frustrated that Washington bureaucrats are calling the shots, rather than working together to develop sensible environmental protections," he said on the Senate floor. "It’s time to roll up our sleeves and provide our ag producers, conservationists, and county and local governments with the regulatory certainty they need to continue efforts to improve water quality."
In addition to Donnelly, three other Democrats voted with Republicans on the measure — Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Federal courts have already put the rules on hold as they consider a number of lawsuits that were filed immediately after the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued the regulations in May.
Sen Dan Coats, R-Indiana, was among those who voted against the Waters of the United States, or WOTUS, rule.
“The WOTUS rule will unduly burden businesses, utilities, manufacturers, farmers, builders and land owners across Indiana,” said Coats in a written statement. “Federal courts agree and have stayed the WOTUS rule pending review. The bill the Senate considered today would have constructively addressed these issues in a bipartisan manner. I am disappointed that a majority of Senate Democrats voted to further cede authority from Congress to unelected federal bureaucrats at the EPA.”
The rules clarify which smaller waterways fall under federal protection after two Supreme Court rulings left the reach of the Clean Water Act uncertain. Those decisions in 2001 and 2006 left 60 percent of the nation's streams and millions of acres of wetlands without clear federal protection, according to the EPA, causing confusion for landowners and government officials.
The EPA says the new rules would force a permitting process only if a business or landowner took steps that would pollute or destroy the affected waters — those with a "direct and significant" connection to larger bodies of water downstream that are already protected. For example, that could include tributaries that show evidence of flowing water.
The Senate bill would force the EPA to withdraw and rewrite the rules. Democratic supporters of the regulations say that would just cause even more confusion.
"We shouldn't pass legislation that would create even more uncertainty and invite years of litigation," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
The House passed a similar bill earlier this year.
Farm and business groups are among the rules' chief opponents, and more than half the states have sued the government in an attempt to block them. Officials from states such as Georgia, New Mexico and Wisconsin have suggested the regulations could be harmful to farmers and landowners who might have to pay for extra permits or redesign their property to manage small bodies of water on their private land.
The EPA has argued the criticism is overblown. Since the rules were originally proposed last year, the agency has been working to clear up some misconceptions, like some critics' assertions that average backyard puddles would be regulated. Current exemptions from the Clean Water Act for farming practices, including plowing, seeding and the movement of livestock, among other things, will continue.