Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), ranking member on the Environment & Public Works Committee (EPW), says at least 11 "endangered" Democrats up for re-election in 2012 could try to bolster their reelection bids by voting with Republicans in the 112th Congress to help resist a rush of Obama EPA rules expected in the next two years.
In an exclusive and wide-ranging interview with Inside EPA Nov. 19, the senator outlined his agenda as the top Republican on the environment panel next year, including passing bipartisan legislation on infrastructure funding and other issues, as well as "reasonable regulations."
Inhofe says he has room to work with several committee Democrats with whom he has a good relationship, including Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (CA), along with Sens. Benjamin Cardin (MD) Tom Carper (DE), Frank Lautenberg (NJ) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). But he noted that Carper, who could have chaired the committee had Boxer lost her reelection bid this year, is "a little less rigid" than Boxer, which would have allowed the panel to "get some things done we couldn't otherwise."
He also praised EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, calling her "courageous" and "honest," and expressed surprise that the President "still has her there."
But Inhofe repeatedly said he fears an aggressive push for strict new EPA rules in the next two years, and vowed to continue to ask Boxer to probe the role that White House climate adviser Carol Browner plays in crafting those rules.
On his concern about the Obama administration rushing through a range of stringent new regulations in advance of the 2012 elections, Inhofe said he is looking to Democrats to help stop that rush of rules. Inhofe said he has a list of 11 "most endangered species" of Senate Democrats who are running for re-election in 2012 who might be looking to bolster their conservative credentials in tight races by opposing some EPA rules in the next two years.
Some unnamed Democrats on the environment committee -- if they choose to stay on the panel in the 112th Congress -- "are the ones that are going to be in tight races in 2012. They might become a lot more cooperative on having hearings that would rein [in] the bureaucracy" on some of the work EPA is doing, Inhofe said.
However, Inhofe said he is "a little more worried" that the Obama administration and some liberal Democrats in the Senate might try to rush through a slew of strict EPA regulations in the next two years ahead of the 2012 presidential election. "The handwriting's on the wall and there's going to be a level of desperation among the more liberal members of the Senate and the Obama administration to get things done," the senator said. "I know people don't like to talk about it, but Republicans will take over the Senate [beginning in 2013], and I hope the White House too, and they will say, 'This is it, this is our last shot.' So with that level of desperation they'll try to hurry things out."
By way of example, Inhofe cited EPA's proposed tightening of the ozone national ambient air quality standard (NAAQS). The Bush EPA tightened the standard in 2008, but the Obama EPA reviewed it and in 2009 proposed a stricter limit. The agency has vowed to issue the final standard by Dec. 31, but Inhofe noted that "we haven't even met the last one yet and they're supposed to wait five years," referring to a Clean Air Act requirement that EPA need only review its NAAQS ever five years. The Obama EPA ozone review is "100 percent political," Inhofe said.
Concerns With EPA Rules
Inhofe said he already has concerns with a number of new or pending agency rules, including its strict final air toxics rule for Portland cement sector, a proposed air toxics rule for boilers, and the final finding that greenhouse gases endanger human health and welfare -- which triggered a Clean Air Act duty for EPA to issue climate rules. "There's no reason in the world they should be rushing [these rules] except for purely political reasons," he said.
But in terms of moving legislation to block EPA rules, perhaps through riders to the agency's annual appropriations legislation, Inhofe said that he would wait to see what the GOP-led House does next year.
"I'm going to wait to see what they will do in the House with their majority and then I will join in in certain areas," the senator said. Republicans in both chambers are increasingly attacking what they see are the major costs of EPA rules, opposing agency air, waste, water and other rules by claiming that will cause job losses.
For example, Reps. Joe Barton (R-TX) and Fred Upton (R-MI) are attacking EPA rules in a bid to burnish their conservative credentials as they vie to chair the Energy & Commerce Committee next year. Inhofe said he is staying out of offering any endorsements in the race but said of the EPA attacks, "Right now they're trying to outdo each other on some of these things we're talking about, which is fine. I don't want them to drop that."
When asked whether criticism of EPA and House efforts to restrict the agency's powers could undercut EPA's ability to regulate even in those areas Republicans support, Inhofe said, "I don't think so and the reason is you've still got to get these things through the Senate. I think that it will be moderated through the Senate."
Inhofe said, "It will be more extreme in the House." EPA has "some functions that they need to be staffed to perform, but there are a lot of things they are doing that they shouldn't be doing," he said.
He added, "Yes we need to be regulated, but not regulated out of business." The senator said there is a need for regulations to "be a little gentler and considerate of the economy," and warned of EPA regulations in areas "they have no business getting into," including the natural gas drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing.
To address his concerns, Inhofe intends to push for EPW hearings on EPA's regulatory agenda, even though the GOP remains in the minority in the Senate. "The problem that I have, as you well know, I can't have a hearing unless the Democrats sign off," he said.
Seeking Browner As EPW Witness
Inhofe also wants hearings with Browner as a witness. "I want to find out what her role is and where she's going to come in on all these things. We've actually informally, staff-to-staff, requested some hearings."
Later in the interview, Inhofe said, "I don't know where Lisa [Jackson] leaves off and Carol Browner's in charge and vice versa. I expect Carol Browner's pretty prominent in the decisionmaking."
But Inhofe conceded that Browner as a White House official could be immune from subpoenas to testify before EPW. "I think they'll make every effort to keep from doing it, I just think it'd be a helpful thing to do," he said.
Inhofe drew a contrast between his relationship with Browner -- EPA administrator during the Clinton administration -- and his relationship with Jackson. "It just happens that during the Clinton administration I didn't get along very well with her and I get along great with Lisa. And Lisa is so courageous and I'm kind of surprised why they still have here there. When you ask her a question she gives you an honest answer."
For example, Inhofe cited a question he asked Jackson on which science the agency would rely for issuing its greenhouse gas endangerment finding. Jackson told Inhofe that the science would be from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, data that critics say has major flaws. "We wouldn't have had that level of straight honesty from Carol Browner," Inhofe said. "That's one reason I like [Jackson] so much."
Inhofe said in addition to a good personal relationship with Jackson there are "a lot of things we agree on. . . . She agrees that you can't kill the goose. You've got to have business and industry out there that is competitive internationally. We can't be chasing our businesses overseas. She'll do a lot of things where she's carrying the water for the administration, I understand that, that goes with the job. But I think in her own mind she's very much concerned about that, she's concerned about over-regulating in a lot of areas that others are not concerned about."
Prospects For Bipartisan Bills
Meanwhile, Inhofe suggested that EPW could move some bipartisan legislation next year on toxics law reform and other issues and cited his past efforts to work with Democrats on environmental bills.
EPW Nov. 30 approved bipartisan bills to reduce lead in drinking water and to provide grants for diesel engine retrofits to cut emissions. Inhofe in a press release issued the same day said the bills will cut emissions and lower lead in drinking water "without sacrificing jobs or economic growth. Here, then, are models of bipartisan environmental legislation that I hope will swiftly pass through Congress and become law by year's end."
The senator in the interview said he has previously worked on bills with panel members Cardin, Carper, Lautenberg, Sanders and others.
For example, Inhofe struck a deal with Cardin on Chesapeake Bay cleanup legislation that helped move the bill out of committee with bipartisan support in June, though Inhofe did not vote for it. The deal eliminated key compliance measures that would have required states to implement EPA's upcoming pollution control plan for the bay, known as a total maximum daily load. Inhofe later opposed the bill on the Senate floor. Cardin "had a clear understanding that when it got to the floor I wasn't going to vote for it, but he went out of his way to make this a better bill and it would help get a lot of Republican support that wouldn't be there otherwise on his Bay bill," Inhofe said in the interview.
Inhofe also suggested he could work with Lautenberg on legislation to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Inhofe vowed in an Oct. 26 statement for an EPW hearing on toxics to work with Senate Democrats on TSCA reform "to the extent they are needed and according to what the best available science is telling us."
"I've talked to Lautenberg a lot on this subject," he said in the interview. "I can't really tell you the specifics or the ingredients that would come into a good TSCA bill. I think we need to have one and he thinks so, too, and we might surprise everyone and come together on something," he said.
Inhofe also said that highway infrastructure funding could be a key area for bipartisan legislation moving out of EPW, though he cautioned that he may have a hard time selling fellow Republicans on any funding increases. "Right now it's a crisis in terms of the highway transportation reauthorization. There's not a state that isn't having a serious problem right now, so we have to do something." Inhofe said he is working with Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), an EPW member and chairman of the Finance Committee, on a long-term highway funding reauthorization bill to try and address those problems.
Previous attempts to reauthorize the highway funding bill have prompted Inhofe to work with Boxer, Inhofe said. The two agreed to a 12-month extension of the bill on the "last day" of fiscal year 2009, Inhofe said, and then both senators tried to sell it to their parties. Boxer sold it to Democrats but Republicans rebuffed Inhofe. "That would have been a really good way forward," Inhofe said of the compromise.
Boxer is likely to retain the top majority spot on EPW in the 112th Congress, which Inhofe said could complicate some attempts to move bipartisan legislation -- a situation that could have been different had Boxer lost her reelection bid and Carper taken the panel chairmanship. "It didn't make all that much difference, but Carper is a little bit less rigid and we'd probably be able to get some things done we couldn't otherwise," Inhofe said.
The senator also reiterated long-running criticism about climate science and calls for greenhouse gas regulations. Inhofe said that rather than continue to attack what he sees as the flawed data on global warming, he will instead focus on the economic and jobs impacts of climate rules.