Republicans force Obama to veto anti-WOTUS measure

By Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, Jan. 13, 2016 - Congressional Republicans have set the stage for President Obama to issue an election-year veto to preserve his administration's Clean Water Act rule that is widely unpopular with farm groups.

In a move designed to highlight contrasting priorities between the political parties, the House on Wednesday gave final congressional approval to a disapproval resolution that would eliminate the “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) rule. Obama is certain to veto the measure.

Republicans were unable to muster a two-thirds majority to approve the resolution in either chamber, and actually lost half the Democratic support that they had in the House on a previous anti-WOTUS measure. 

But House Speaker Paul Ryan, writing in the Omaha World-Herald ahead of the vote, said the veto would force Obama “to be up front with the American people about his administration's power grabs and will set the stage for correcting these abuses in 2017.”

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House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, argued during the floor debate that ”farmers and ranchers deserve a government that will review and consider their thoughts, not a government that refuses to engage stakeholders and hands down orders from on high.”

To the frustration of Democrats, the WOTUS resolution is one of a series of measures that Republicans have been forcing votes on to make a case to voters for keeping Congress in GOP hands and electing a Republican president this fall. 

“We don't pass legislation. Instead we pass sound bites and that's what we're doing here,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. “This chamber has become an echo chamber, if you will, for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee and its priorities.”

The rule took effect last August but courts have put it on hold nationwide while legal challenges are considered. 

Another Democrat who opposed the resolution nevertheless conceded that the courts may strike down at least portions of it. 

“Is it perfect? No,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. “In fact, the courts may find it wanting in a number of ways. which would require further action by Congress.”

The House approved the resolution, 255-166, with the support of 12 Democrats. Twenty-four Democrats voted for a bill last spring that would have forced the administration to rewrite the rule. Senate Democrats successfully blocked that measure from moving in that chamber, but they couldn't stop the disapproval resolution, which didn't require the normal 60-vote margin to overcome a filibuster and was ultimately approved, 53-44.

Rep. Jim Costa, a Democrat who represents part of California's agriculture-intensive Central Valley, supported the resolution but said that the administration made enough changes to the final version of the rule to shrink the already limited Democratic opposition.

“They modified the rule to try to address concerns that many of us have raised, but I still wasn't satisfied,” he said. 

One Republican voted against the resolution, Chris Smith of New Jersey. 

The White House issued a veto threat in November before the Senate vote. “Simply put, S.J.Res. 22 is not an act of good governance. It would sow confusion and invite conflict at a time when our communities and businesses need clarity and certainty around clean water regulation,” says the statement of administration policy.

Republicans are running out of legislative options to stop the rule. Republicans wanted to add language to the fiscal 2016 omnibus spending bill that would have blocked enforcement of  the rule should the court stays be lifted, but the White House refused to allow the provision. 

The resolution was drafted under the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to reject major new regulations.

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Conservation groups and fishing organizations appealed to lawmakers ahead of the vote to preserve the WOTUS rule. 

The resolution “not only wipes out the final Clean Water Rule but also prohibits any substantially similar rule in the future. It locks in the current state of jurisdictional confusion and offers no constructive path forward for regulatory clarity or clean water,” wrote the groups, which included the National Wildlife Federation, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Trout Unlimited.

The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Bill Shuster, R-Pa., took a dig at Obama over a line in State of the Union address in which he said that “there are outdated regulations that need to be changed, and there's red tape that needs to be cut.”

“This is a time when the president can show us that those words last night weren't hollow,” Shuster said. 

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