The Senate Environment & Public Works Committee is expected to lose jurisdiction next year over legislation requiring security improvements at chemical plants, bringing new lawmakers to the debate and making the fate of the contentious bill uncertain in the next Congress.
The development comes as committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK) is considering dropping or revising his chemical security bill, and is seeking an audit from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, before deciding whether mandatory regulations are needed for facilities housing hazardous materials. At the same time, Sen. Jon Corzine (D-NJ) is expected to renew his push next year for an industry-opposed chemical security plan, congressional sources say.
The change in committee jurisdiction was prompted by a Senate resolution approved last month before lawmakers adjourned for the election. The resolution centralizes homeland security oversight in the Governmental Affairs Committee, which is run by Chairman Susan Collins (R-ME) and Ranking Democrat Joe Lieberman (CT).
Following this fall's elections -- when the GOP increased its majority in the chamber -- Republicans will likely have two or three more members than Democrats on the panel. But Senate sources say no final decisions have been made about the makeup of the committee when the 109th Congress convenes in January. The Governmental Affairs Committee in the past has operated on a fairly bipartisan basis, while legislation in the environment panel often gets bogged down in partisan gridlock.
Because provisions for EPA oversight were dropped from Inhofe's chemical security bill, as well as the Corzine plan, sources say the government oversight committee will likely have sole jurisdiction over the bill.
But the new role of the committee raises questions about the fate of the bill because the panel to date has not been central to the debate over enhanced security requirements at chemical plants, while the issue is certain to reemerge in the next congressional session. The lack of mandatory federal requirements at chemical plants was cited by Democrats during the presidential and congressional campaigns to criticize the homeland security record of Republicans and President Bush. Republicans have argued that stringent security regulations are unnecessary because the chemical industry is moving forward with its own plans to reduce plant vulnerabilities.
The expanded role of the governmental affairs committee could be a blow to the chemical industry, since it has worked closely with Inhofe in developing a legislative plan that endorses voluntary security efforts that individual companies have adopted. "The committee chairmanship [on government affairs] may not be familiar with everything we are doing to increase security," one industry official says. "We'll have to meet with them about that."
Environmentalists and their Democratic allies on the environment committee, including Lieberman, have strongly supported Corzine's plan, saying it would reduce potential risks to local communities by requiring that companies use safer alternative chemicals.
One environmentalist says he had expected Collins to support a pared-down chemical security bill that Corzine had threatened to push as an amendment to intelligence reform legislation approved last month by the Senate. But Corzine's plan never came up for a vote amid strong industry opposition.