WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday approved and sent to President Biden another Republican-led measure to overturn an administration rule, this one a rollback of new clean water regulations opposed by business and agriculture interests.
Mr. Biden has pledged to veto the legislation blocking the “waters of the United States” rule, but the approval of the measure marked the second time this month that Republicans have broken away enough Democrats to force a veto showdown over administration policies.
“We’re going to send a message to the White House,” said Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia and chief backer of the legislation. “No, this regulation does not fit. It does not help. And as a matter of fact, in a lot of ways, it hurts.”
The vote was 53 to 43, with four Democrats and one independent joining 48 Republicans in challenging the administration rule. The House had already voted to overturn it.
The Senate also voted, 68 to 23, to overturn the administration’s declaration of a Covid-19 public health emergency, a move the president is not expected to veto. The vote was largely symbolic since the administration had already said the emergency declaration would be allowed to expire in May, though the measure could hasten the end of it somewhat.
The votes demonstrated the potency of what has fast become a preferred weapon against Biden administration policies for Republicans, who control the House but are just shy of a majority in the Senate. Because such “resolutions of disapproval” are not subject to the 60-vote Senate filibuster and can pass if just a few Democrats defect, Republicans have seized on the procedural tactic as a way to force tough votes and spark veto fights.
Three of the Democrats who split with their party on the clean water vote — Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana and Jacky Rosen of Nevada — are up for re-election next year in potentially tough races, as is Senator Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona independent who is aligned with Democrats but broke with them on the vote.
A Divided Congress
With similar Democratic backing, Republicans carried a congressional vote to block a new Biden administration policy allowing retirement funds to invest on the basis of “environmental, social and governance” factors. The president issued a veto on that measure last week — the first of his presidency. The House then fell short in its override attempt, meaning the rule will stand.
Using its power of oversight over the nation’s capital, Congress also voted this month to block a new criminal code for the District of Columbia that reduced or eliminated mandatory minimum sentences on carjacking and some other violent crimes. President Biden signed that measure, which drew significant Democratic backing. On Wednesday, the Republican-led House geared up to block another District of Columbia proposal on police conduct.
The water rule at issue grew out of the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 and has been the subject of congressional and court fights since the 1980s as the federal government has sought to define what constitutes a waterway subject to federal regulation on pollution.
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Republicans say the Biden proposal is too complicated and broad, and would inhibit agriculture operations, development and other activities that would need permits. They say even ponds and streams that contain water only on a seasonal basis or after storms would be covered, placing new burdens on those who would have to comply.
“Agriculture, oil and gas, energy, the housing industry, road builders, bridge builders, construction workers and municipalities have all voiced their disapproval of the rule and the cost of the negative impacts that its adoption will have on American industries and consumers,” said Senator Roger Marshall, Republican of Kansas.
But Democrats said the new language represented a reasonable compromise that would reduce the threat of water pollution while granting some flexibility to those who would be covered by it. Senator Thomas R. Carper, Democrat of Delaware and the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the new rule exempts an estimated 53 million acres of farmland.
“Some might say our nation cannot afford a level of protection for our waterways and wetlands provided by the Biden rule,” Mr. Carper said. “The converse is true. The reality is that because of the interconnectedness of our waterways, our streams, wetlands, oceans and estuaries, how private property owners manage their land has the potential to affect us all.”
The administration said that upending the rule would leave farmers and businesses unsure if they had to comply with an array of federal requirements.
“The increased uncertainty would threaten economic growth, including for agriculture, local economies and downstream communities,” the White House said in a statement threatening a veto. “Farmers would be left wondering whether artificially irrigated areas remain exempt or not. Construction crews would be left wondering whether their water-filled gravel pits remain exempt or not.”
The government has struggled for decades to define the affected waterways. The Trump administration reversed rules put in place by the Obama administration and instituted its own less sweeping plan. The new Biden rules, which would remain in place if Mr. Biden issues a veto that is not overridden, are the latest attempt to revamp them.
Congress is not the only impediment. A federal judge in Texas recently blocked enforcement of the new rules, and a pending Supreme Court case could limit the ability of the federal government to regulate waterways. Republicans said the administration should have held off until the Supreme Court ruled.
“Of course, they couldn’t wait,” Ms. Capito said. “They had to grow the federal government’s authority.”
In the House, the Republican-led Oversight Committee voted along party lines on Wednesday to strike down the D.C. Council’s emergency police overhaul law that passed in the summer of 2020 amid nationwide outcry over police abuse.
The D.C. measure strengthened training requirements and prohibited the hiring of officers with a history of misconduct. But the D.C. police union vehemently objected to it, particularly to a provision that limited its ability to bargain in discipline cases against specific officers. The union has blamed the law for an exodus of officers from the force.
Representative Andrew Clyde, Republican of Georgia and the House measure’s sponsor, called the district’s law “a backdoor defund the police” that weakened morale and made “them quit so they don’t really want to work for D.C. anymore.”
Phil Mendelson, the chairman of the D.C. Council, said the statute promoted police accountability. “Our law is not an attack on police or a threat to public safety,” he said, adding: “Police union-negotiated discipline is bad for public safety, bad for accountability, and bad for oversight.”
Luke Broadwater contributed reporting.
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