WASHINGTON, Nov. 4, 2015 - Senate Democrats blocked a long-awaited Republican attempt to force the Obama administration to replace its rule re-defining the waters of the United States (WOTUS) that are regulated by the Clean Water Act. But a Senate appropriator is expressing optimism that Republicans can use a government-wide spending bill due in December to ensure the administration cant enforce the WOTUS rule, even if the federal courts allow it to go forward.

On Tuesday, supporters of the WOTUS-replacement measure sponsored by John Barrasso, R-Wyo., fell two votes short of getting the 60 needed to bring it to a full debate. Just four Democrats supported the cloture motion.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly brought up a fallback measure, a disapproval resolution, that would simply kill the WOTUS rule. That only needed a simple majority to proceed, which it got, 55-43. A final vote on the resolution was expected Wednesday.

The votes allowed Republicans to put some pressure on Democrats on the issue. Opponents of the measures will live to regret the decision, said GOP Whip John Cornyn of Texas.  Both the bill and the resolution, however, are largely symbolic because of White House veto threats: The votes demonstrated that supporters are nowhere near having a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

John Hoeven of North Dakota, who sits on the Senate Appropriations subcommittees that oversee EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, tells Agri-Pulse that the court rulings blocking implementation of the rule probably took some of the heat off Democrats. But he believes Republicans need to get a provision in the fiscal 2016 omnibus spending bill that would prevent the rule from being enforced.

The court can lift the injunction at some point, Hoeven said. And if we can include WOTUS in the (omnibus) appropriation bill essentially that takes care of it through the Obama administration and then well be dealing with a new administration.

A North Dakota federal judge issued an order in August that blocked enforcement of the rule in 13 states, and then the Sixth U.S. Circuit of Appeals last month extended the stay nationwide. The Sixth Circuit, based in Cincinnati, has scheduled oral arguments for Dec. 8.

Supporters of the WOTUS rule peeled off a couple of votes since the Senate approved a non-binding anti-WOTUS amendment in March. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Angus King, I-Maine, supported that amendment, but on Tuesday they voted against debating both the bill and the disapproval resolution.

Four Democrats voted to debate the Barrasso bill - Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. But McCaskill broke away and opposed moving the disapproval resolution.


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