Senate sharply divided over WOTUS rule

By Philip Brasher

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WASHINGTON, Nov. 3, 2015 - Senate Democrats blocked a bill aimed at forcing the Obama administration to replace its Clean Water Act rule, but Republicans quickly advanced a disapproval resolution that would simply kill the rule. 

The measure aimed at replacing the rule needed 60 votes to advance to a full debate, but just four Democrats supported the cloture motion, leaving the bill three votes short, 57-41. The rule would re-define what ditches, wetlands, streams and other features fall under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act (CWA) as “waters of the United States” (WOTUS).

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After the cloture motion failed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who called the WOTUS rule a “cynical and overbearing power grab,” brought up the GOP fallback measure, the disapproval resolution sponsored by Joni Ernst, R-Iowa. It only needed a simple majority to proceed, and the Senate voted 55-43 to take it up.

Both votes were largely symbolic, because of White House veto threats, but GOP Whip John Cornyn of Texas made clear that Republicans believed it would be politically painful for some Democrats. Opponents “will live to regret the decision,” he said. 

In a statement of administration policy, the White House said the WOTUS rule was “essential to ensure clean water for future generations.”

Under the bill, sponsored by John Barrasso, R-Wyo., ‘any revisions to the CWA regulations would require the agencies to define waters of the United States in a manner inconsistent' with the law, “resulting in more confusion, uncertainty, and inconsistency," the White House said.

The bill would require the administration to write a new rule but set tight restrictions on its scope. 

The rule, which took effect in August, has been stayed nationwide because of federal court challenges. Republicans are expected to try to use the fiscal 2016 omnibus spending bill to block the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers from enforcing the rule even if the courts allow it to move forward. 

Opponents of the Barrasso bill managed to recruit just one Democrat to the cause, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, beyond the three who were already cosponsoring the measure, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. 

“If Congress fails to act our ag community will be faced with continued confusion and uncertainty,” Donnelly said.  

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